I was thinking today that the word "quarantine", since 2020, has probably seen an increase in usage unprecedented since the advent of the printing press. Hastening to Google Ngrams to verify my theory, I discovered to my dismay that this tool requires an end date between 1500 and 2019. Perhaps another year will suffice to confirm my theory; however, in the meantime, another question arose from the graph I did obtain:

enter image description here

Why did the word "quarantine" see such a spike in usage between around 1880 and 1930? Were there any changes in its usage around that time, or any important events in the English-speaking world which might have led to the word's relevance increasing? I thought about the Spanish flu pandemic, but the increase in usage of "quarantine" began decades before that.

  • 4
    There were serious outbreaks of yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, TB etc starting early to mid 1800s , and this coincided with the great emigration of Italian, Irish, and Swedish people. Several Health Boards were created to deal with the situation and published a number of reports and restrictions of travel due to this...Ellis Island was opened in 1892 to deal with it. Mar 27, 2021 at 13:19
  • 2
    @Cascabel That sounds like a reasonable answer to me.
    – Joachim
    Mar 27, 2021 at 15:58
  • 1
    The Google Ngram books.google.com/ngrams/… is interesting: the increase in use was almost entirely driven by America.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 27, 2021 at 22:57

1 Answer 1


The spike in usage of the term quarantine appears to be related both to importation of contagious diseases because of the increase of immigration the late 19th century and to the many different health organizations at local and state levels which adopted quarantine as a measure to prevent the spread of diseases. The system was nationalized a few decades later and with it immigration began to slowdown

When the United States was first established, little was done to prevent the importation of infectious diseases. Protection against imported diseases fell under local and state jurisdiction. Individual municipalities enacted a variety of quarantine regulations for arriving vessels.

State and local governments made sporadic attempts to impose quarantine requirements. Continued outbreaks of yellow fever finally prompted Congress to pass federal quarantine legislation in 1878. This legislation, while not conflicting with states’ rights, paved the way for federal involvement in quarantine activities.

Outbreaks of cholera from passenger ships arriving from Europe prompted a reinterpretation of the law in 1892 to provide the federal government more authority in imposing quarantine requirements.

The quarantine system was fully nationalized by 1921 when administration of the last quarantine station was transferred to the federal government.

The Public Health Service Act of 1944 clearly established the federal government’s quarantine authority for the first time. The act gave the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) responsibility for preventing the introduction, transmission, and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States.

History of Quarantine

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.