John O. Jensen
THE UNWANTED: CHOLERA, IMMIGRANTS, AND NATIONAL PUBLIC HEALTH IN 1892.
(Under the direction of Professor William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, December 1992.
This thesis examines a little known but highly significant chapter in the history of United States public health. Cholera's appearance on ships in New York harbor in September 1892 catalyzed public fears of both disease and immigrants and resulted in an unprecedented extension of federal responsibility over public health. The Marine Hospital Service, backed by the Secretary of the Treasury and President of the United States, declared a mandatory 20-day quarantine for all immigrant carrying ships. The mandatory quarantine was designed to stop immigration by removing the profit from steerage traffic. It also reversed a century of precedents that held that local and state public health laws superseded federal rules. The Marine Hospital Service's initiatives were greeted enthusiastically by the public, but not by Dr. William Jenkins, the Tammany Hall connected Health Officer of the Port of New York, who chaffed at the intrusion and his loss of authority. The entire cholera crises and the resulting friction between local, state, and federal health officials was played out across the front pages of American newspapers. In the end, New York's quarantine system appeared corrupt and inefficient while the Marine Hospital Service emerged with an enhanced reputation for effective action and honest administration. In February 1893, congress enacted a new quarantine act that legitimized the Marine Hospital Service's many activities during the cholera crisis. The new law gave federal officials the power to set and, if necessary, enforce quarantine rules superior to those of the states and towns and permanently expanded the federal role in protecting public health in the United States.
This thesis revises the work of earlier historians, specifically John Higham and Alan Kraut, who have interpreted the 1893 quarantine act as an alternative to tougher immigration laws being demanded in the wake of the cholera crisis. This was not the case. After the New York cholera crisis, the need for a stronger federal quarantine law was recognized by politicians on both sides of the immigration issue. The final bill reflected recent advancements in bacteriology and changes in constitutional law. As enacted, the 1893 law recognized federal authority to restrict immigration in the interest of public health as defined by the germ theory of disease rather than by contemporary social thought.