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QUARANTINE! by Howard Markel


East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892

by Howard Markel

Pub Date: June 5th, 1997
ISBN: 0-8018-5512-8
Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ.

 A revealing cultural and medical history that demonstrates how eastern European Jews, already subject to a kind of social quarantine, became the scapegoats when typhus and cholera struck New York City in 1892. Markel, a clinicial historian who now directs the Historical Center for Health Sciences at the University of Michigan Medical School, documents the quarantine year through immigrant diaries and letters, Jewish social-agency reports, government files, and the press--both Yiddish and American. Liberal use of photographs, maps, cartoons, diagrams, and drawings add to the impact of Markel's powerful narrative. When an outbreak of typhus fever in January 1892 was traced to the SS Massilia, which carried 268 Russian Jewish immigrants, every single one, sick and healthy alike, along with several thousand healthy Jews with whom they had been in contact, were quarantined on North Brother Island in the East River. The focus was not on treatment of the ill but on isolation of the suspect group and protection of the native-born. Later that year, when cholera struck, Russian Jewish immigrants were again targeted. Whereas the typhus epidemic had been managed by the New York City Health Department, the cholera outbreak brought federal and state authorities into contentious play. Markel reveals how prejudice, fear, and anti-immigrant sentiment shaped both public reaction and official policy. He points out that the intertwining of immigration policy with fear of imported disease and social scapegoating that marked this episode in our history continues to the present day, and he notes that responses to future public health crises will be as much a measure of society's perceptions of health, disease, and individual rights as they are of medical and scientific understanding. A valuable contribution to the history of public health in America, to New York City history, and to American Jewish history.