The term “quarantine” comes from the Italian term quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days, and that was the amount of time ships arriving in Venice during the 14th century had to be isolated in port to stop transmission of the plague. Although it may seem foreign to us in the 21st Century to talk about quarantines, but with the COVID-19 infecting the nation, it’s helpful to note that quarantines in Pittsburgh have happened before. In fact, there were hospitals in the area specifically designated to treat infectious diseases. Here’s a look at some medical moments in our quarantined past:

Although Hand’s Hospital is no longer standing, there is a historical marker in Crafton commemorating this isolation hospital built there in 1777 by General Edward Hand to care for sick troops housed at Fort Pitt.

A quarantine was imposed in 1878 during the great yellow fever outbreak in Pittsburgh. When a deck hand from a river boat fell ill here and died, a quarantine was imposed, and the outbreak was contained. Memphis did not fare so well; the epicenter of the outbreak lost 4,327 people to the disease.

In 1894, the City of Allegheny, now known as the North Side of Pittsburgh, was a separate city, and its Bureau of Health issued a report that said:

There were five cases of Smallpox in the City during the year, the disease was brought to the city from Pittsburgh, the cases were all successfully treated and the disease was confined in each case to the place in which it developed, the most rigid quarantine regulations were enforced, two of the cases were treated at the Municipal Hospital and the others were quarantined in their homes under the constant surveillance of officers of this office.

The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 was chilling in its death toll, especially in Pittsburgh. No one knew what a virus was back then, and when this flu hit, treatment and prevention was scattershot and terribly ineffective. According to a 1985 article called Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918, by Kenneth White, that appeared in Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, during the first four days of October in 1918, 284 cases were reported, two days later there were 784. Swimming pools, poolrooms and billiard parlors were closed. On October 7, the health department went on an epidemic footing, discharging patients from hospitals who were well enough to go home, and churches and playgrounds were closed. By October 19, a Pittsburgher caught the flu every 19 seconds and one died every 15 minutes. By November, the Spanish flu had diminished leaving approximately 4,500 residents dead and 700 children as orphans. Sadly, Pittsburgh had the highest death rate of any large city in the United States. Nationally, 650,000 people died, which temporarily lowered life expectancy in the U.S. by 12 years.

Unlike the Spanish flu, which came like a wildfire, quickly wreaking havoc and then dying out, a new frightening disease appeared in 1916 and lingered for decades. The disease attacked young children leaving them paralyzed and was initially dubbed infantile paralysis. Polio would plague the world until Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine against the disease in 1957. Nationwide, during the first outbreak, 25% of victims died. The disease would terrorize parents and children and induce quarantines and the development of “iron lungs,” medical devices that helped victims to breathe.

According to a 1928 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, a quarantine was instituted in Pittsburgh in 1924.

Pneumonia quarantine was inaugurated in Pittsburgh on April 1,1924, because some method was necessary to cut down the unenviable record we had of being the highest in pneumonia deaths as reported by the Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C., in a report dated January 12, 1924, embracing 72 cities, and giving Pittsburgh a rate of 371 per 100,000.

In 1939, Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital for Contagious Diseases was constructed as a project of the Public Works Administration during the Great Depression. As a child, my mother, Patricia Lane, said this hospital was often referred to as the “pest house” because if you caught a communicable disease, you were sent there. She remembers a neighborhood child, who came down with meningitis and was sent there for a month to isolate him. Even his parents were not allowed to visit. Jonas Salk would later conduct his polio vaccine research there. Salk Hall on the University of Pittsburgh was once a part of the former Municipal Hospital.

When I was a child and if I coughed loudly, my grandmother would often say, “Oh my, you sound like Leech Farm.” That always puzzled me. How did a cough sound like a place where they farmed leeches? But I later learned that Leech Farm was the site of the area’s Tuberculosis hospital. Located in today’s Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar neighborhood of the city, the Tuberculosis Hospital was operated by the city of Pittsburgh on what was once the Leech Farm property, hence the name. It opened in 1915 and could treat 150 tuberculosis patients in cottage-like dwellings. Additions in the 1920s double the hospital’s capacity. When a treatment for tuberculosis was developed, the Tuberculosis hospital, or “Leech Farm,” was no longer needed.

There was a cholera outbreaks in 1854, and all those nasty immunizations you got as a child were developed to prevent horrible diseases like diphtheria, whooping cough, pertussis, measles, that erupted in the past causing sickness and death. My mother talks of being quarantined with scarlet fever as a child. “The Board of Health came and put a sign on our door advising you to stay out of the house. That we had scarlet fever.”

While illness and quarantines may be uncommon to us, they aren’t to Pittsburgh. This area has been there before, many times, and no doubt, we will survive, get well, and thrive once again.

Written by Janice Lane Palko


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