Cincinnati’s 1878 Quarantine Saved Thousands of Lives

A strict lockdown of travel and shipping earned Cincinnati’s Health Commissioner, Thomas C. Minor, short-term scorn and long-term gratitude.

For a couple of years, Thomas C. Minor, M.D. was the least popular man in Delhi Township and, simultaneously, the most acclaimed man in Cincinnati. He was the newly elected health commissioner of Cincinnati, and he took command just as a major epidemic threatened the Queen City. Heavy rains around Memphis in 1878 resulted in massive swarms of mosquitos that transmitted the dreaded yellow fever. Over the next year, more than 20,000 people in the Ohio Valley would die from this horrible malady.

Thomas C. Minor, M.D.

Photograph courtesy of Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

Yellow fever is a viral disease spread by mosquitos. Initial symptoms of elevated temperature, nausea, and reduced appetite often pass within a week. Among a minority of those infected, the disease comes roaring back, expressed by bleeding and traumatized kidneys and leading to yellowish skin, anguish, and death.

In 1878, Cincinnati was a major shipping port with 250,000 residents. Much of that shipping came up river from Memphis and New Orleans, hotbeds of yellow fever contagion. At the first word of the epidemic, Dr. Minor established what’s been described as the first regular interstate quarantine ever undertaken in the U.S.

With no authority but lots of chutzpah, Dr. Minor dispatched inspectors to Walton, Kentucky, and Lawrenceburg, Indiana, with orders to stop and inspect every train on every railroad rolling toward Cincinnati. He set up a quarantine station on the Ohio River, where his agents boarded and examined all the cargo and all the passengers on every riverboat before it was allowed to dock.

To the dismay of Delhi Township, the river quarantine station was located on their riverbank. The west-siders suffered in silence for a while but, as the quarantine station entered its second year, residents sent a delegation to complain to Dr. Minor. According to The Cincinnati Gazette [July 30, 1879]:

“Dr. Minor said to them that he was very far from desiring to impose in any way upon the people of Delhi. The health of that village was an important consideration to him, if for no other reason than that an epidemic there would affect Cincinnati.”

When the residents of Delhi implored Dr. Minor to move the quarantine center down river a bit, alongside a gravel pit, he agreed to explore that option, but the gravel pit owner vehemently refused to allow any such activities on his property. Within a week, North Bend chimed in and announced that Dr. Minor better think again before he even considered moving his plague spot downriver toward their little burg.

The residents of Taylor Creek, on the Kentucky shore opposite Delhi, were also agitated about the quarantine station in their backyard. According to The Commercial Tribune [July 25, 1879]:

“Dr. Minor assured the gentlemen that the people of Taylor Creek incurred no risk of contracting yellow fever by reason of the quarantine, on the contrary, quite the reverse; nevertheless, he could not give them assurances beyond all human possibility, and they departed apparently satisfied that as long as there was no direct communication with their community they stood in no more danger than the rest of mankind.”

This “not in my backyard” pushback was well known. Within Cincinnati, quarantines had been a part of everyday life almost since the city’s founding. For years, a “pest house” had operated in the West End near the banks of Mill Creek. There, people who contracted smallpox, cholera, malaria, typhus, plague, influenza, and other virulent diseases were shipped off to die or recover as fate decided.

As the West End became more densely populated, the “pest house” was moved to Roh’s Hill—approximately where Rohs Street intersects McMillan Avenue these days. The sparsely populated hilltop seemed like a decent location until that area attracted more residents. When a brewery opened downhill from the quarantine hospital, it was a signal that the pest house needed to move again. Eventually a plot of land near the Potter’s Field graveyard in Price Hill was acquired for what eventually became Dunham Tuberculosis Hospital.

As for Dr. Minor, his strict regulations proved their worth. J.W. Leonard’s 1888 Centennial Review of Cincinnati describes how Cincinnati escaped the ravages of this disease that killed thousands elsewhere:

“In 1878 there was a yellow fever scare, and thirty-five deaths occurred from the disease, only two of which, however, were of residents, the other victims being visitors from infected districts.”

After two terms as health commissioner, Dr. Minor refused election to a third term and returned to private practice. He was eventually called back into public service to serve as Cincinnati’s police commissioner, earning a biographical spot in G.M. Roe’s 1890 history of the Cincinnati department, Our Police. That book describes how Dr. Minor persevered in the face of opposition to his methods:

“It was probably owing to these precautions which were undertaken, not without a great deal of adverse criticism, that the city owed its escape from the ravages of the plague.”

After a distinguished career, Thomas C. Minor died at age 66 of pneumonia contracted through a serious case of what was then known as “la grippe.” He was laid to rest in Spring Grove Cemetery in 1912, six years before the influenza pandemic revived many of his ideas about quarantine and public health.

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