Column: A historical look at Indiana’s public health crises


Commentary by Robert Bowling

We are certainly living in unprecedented times. COVID-19 has forced all Americans to change their way of life. Students have had to adapt to online learning as schools have been forced to close. Businesses are struggling to remain open while the virus wreaks havoc on our economy. Face masks have become part of our normal clothing attire. And the virus is testing the limits of government intrusion in the lives of its citizens, all in the name of public health. While we continue to encounter new restrictions, here is a look at how history has dealt with contagious diseases in Indiana.

The word quarantine has become part of our daily lexicon. Although quarantine is a new experience for many of us, it has been around since the 14th century. During the bubonic plague, ships arriving in Venice, Italy, would have to sit for 40 days before docking. This practice became known as quarantine and the word is derived from the Italian words for 40 days.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw Indiana put on numerous travel advisories from neighboring states like Ohio and major cities like Chicago. Residents were requested to quarantine for 14 days if they traveled to Indiana due to the state’s high positivity rate. Chicago actually introduced fines for those that violated it, up to $7,000. But this isn’t new. In 1902, Kentucky declared quarantine against Indiana because Gov. Durbin refused to use funds to stamp out smallpox. Ferries and trains denied tickets to Indiana residents, and anyone caught in Kentucky without a health certificate was fined and was transported back across the state line.

The pandemic also has changed how we grieve. There have been stories of loved ones having to FaceTime as they said their goodbyes. Many funerals are now closed to the public, limited only to immediate family members. But this isn’t a new practice, either. In 1897, Indiana listed 17 different contagious diseases that would require being quarantined. Anyone who died of these diseases was required to be buried within 24 hours and the funeral was limited to immediate family members, pallbearers, minister and an undertaker.

Many people have begun to question the government’s power to force people to quarantine, wear masks or dictate what they do in their private homes. But during the smallpox pandemic in the 1900s, health officers were invested with power to compel people to quarantine. Sometimes, force was used to enforce the quarantine, like in 1906 in Franklin, where eight armed men under the control of the sheriff confined 23 people who were infected with smallpox.

A unique difference between the quarantine of the past and present is that it was the government’s responsibility to provide food for those locked in their homes. But sometimes, politics overruled public health. During the scarlet fever epidemic in 1912, the City of Richmond was so broke that it had to release people from quarantine early in order to save money.

In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox globally eradicated. But only time will tell about the duration of COVID-19 and if our efforts will be enough.