Quarantine and Cultural Memory

Quarantine and Cultural Memory

Today I’m thinking about quarantine and cultural memory.

On our road trip to Pennsylvania we listened to Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome. In the novel the children we met in Swallows and Amazons, the Walkers and the Blacketts, are enjoying a post-Christmas winter holiday in the Lake District before heading back to their boarding schools. They meet two new children, Dick and Dorothea Callum, who they invite to join in their game of being polar explorers. But the expedition to the North Pole is frustrated because the lake won’t freeze over properly and they only have a few days before they go back to school. And then… the best thing happens: Nancy gets mumps and they are all put in quarantine and so cannot go back to school.

And here’s the detail I found fascinating as a bit of cultural memory that has been forgotten. It’s not only Nancy who has the mumps who is quarantined, all the other children must not go back to school either. And they each have papers they must return to the school when they go back after break. Papers to be signed by a parent or guardian that assert the child has not had a communicable disease or been exposed to one over the holidays— or, if they had been exposed, they have been through the medically appropriate quarantine period. The papers cannot be signed and so the children get a whole extra month of holidays.

I’m not sure why, but I was fascinated by the papers, the pre-vaccination equivalent of the immunization records that today’s parents must present to schools and camps. The equivalent and yet not quite the same thing. It’s logical, but I’d never imagined that such papers existed they are so far outside the realm of my experience. And I really love these little details that show how very different in some ways that world was from our own.

“John had bolted upstairs to fetch their school health certificates. The doctor had just glanced at them and nodded. Susan, Titty, and Peggy were reading them now, and hungry as everybody was, they found the certificates so interesting that Mrs. Jackson asked them what had become of their appetites.

Susan showed hers to Dorothea.

On the top of it, in large, handsome letters, was the name of a school, and then, under it, in ordinary type:—

I hereby certify that during the last holidays ………………………………….. (‘That space is for our names,’ said Susan) has not suffered from any infectious disorder, and, to the best of my knowledge and belief, has not been where any infectious disorder existed . . .

Note — if the above certificate cannot be signed, the pupil concerned must not return to the school without permission.

‘There’s no getting out of it,’ said Susan. ‘The things can’t be signed.’


‘Quarantine begins from today,’ they heard [Mrs. Blackett] saying as she was coming downstairs again. ‘Twenty-eight days, the doctor says, and if any of them gets the mumps now, it’ll be another twenty-eight days from then. No, I’ll not be coming over again until Nancy’s clear of infection. If it was only Peggy it wouldn’t matter, but with the Walkers and these other children all with their parents out of England, I won’t take any risk at all.”

And I do not want to get into a debate about vaccines, that’s not what this is about, really. But I did start to think about how vaccines are one of the current hot-button debate of today and yet I wonder how many people on either side of the debate really have a clear idea of what life was like before vaccines. I wonder if we’ve just lost a part of our cultural memory, even though we think we know what it was like— I thought I knew what it was like. But then … maybe we really don’t remember as clearly as we think we do?

On our vacation we also visited the shrine of St Elizabeth Ann Seton. Her husband had tuberculosis and they decided to travel to Italy— no small undertaking in those days— in hopes that the change in climate might do him some good. (This was, of course, well before antibiotics which could cure TB.) Well when they arrived in Italy they were put into quarantine because the Italian authorities feared they might have brought yellow fever from New York. Elizabeth’s husband, William Seton died in quarantine.

The quarantine in Winter Holiday was pretty benign. Nancy was confined to bed until her illness improved but thereafter she was able to roam the house and garden at will, she just needed to stay away from the other children. The other children couldn’t go back to school, but were free to roam and play in the countryside. Not much fear of them spreading the mumps because all the other local children had also gone back to school. There are hints that they are careful not to come too close to other people, though. They fly the quarantine flag when they visit the area of the local village. Otherwise they are only around adults who have presumably all survived the mumps as children.

But what struck me was this: we really have no idea what it would be like to go back to a world where not everyone is vaccinated. We have no idea what it would be to regularly worry about signing papers asserting a child had not come into contact with a disease or what it would be to keep them home from school for weeks, possibly months, just because they’d been exposed, not even shown symptoms of the disease. How much time in total was lost from children’s schooling because of diseases we now regularly vaccinate against?

Do we remember what quarantine was like? All of life put on hold while you wait to see if you’re going to get sick or not. Waiting waiting and wondering. Even for an illness which a character in the novel thinks of as no very big deal. No very big deal, but you can’t send them to be sick at school. It just made me stop to think about the big and little things of history and how technological changes sometimes erase things our ancestors knew or assumed and we don’t even realize what we’ve forgotten.

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  • Interesting. I am old enough to have been a child before the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was in use – I had measles and rubella, and my brother had mumps, so we clearly didn’t share viruses! I don’t remember quarantine being an issue though. I think the health certificates may just have been for boarding schools. When schools were in charge of a large number of children, many of whom would have parents living abroad, they would have had to minimise the risk of someone bringing an infectious disease, particularly as kids were often sleeping in large dormitories (I remember being in a dormitory of 16 in the early 70s).

    I have read a lot of First World War newspapers over the last few years, and there were quite often reports of local schools being temporarily closed due to measles outbreaks, with nothing to suggest that children in contact with measles cases were being quarantined. Until the middle of the 20th century there were isolation hospitals where children and adults suffering from more serious infectious diseases such as typhoid, smallpox, diphtheria and scarlet fever were sent. I don’t think they were allowed visitors at all while they were infectious – must have been terrifying for the children. Measles and mumps counted as routine childhood illnesses so weren’t subject to this regime.

  • That makes sense that health certificates were a thing for boarding schools and not for regular schools. Boarding schools are another totally foreign thing to my experience, except in books. There are a few in the US, of course, and I had a friend who taught at one that specialized in training Olympic hopefuls; but in English literature, they’re just ubiquitous. And they’ve always rather captivated me.