On this day in 1884, President Chester Arthur issued a proclamation giving the federal government the power to quarantine persons entering the United States to avoid the spread of “pestilence.” The proclamation did not mention the name of the disease from which Arthur was seeking to protect the public: tuberculosis.
Two years earlier, the bacillus that causes tuberculosis had first been identified by Robert Koch, a German physician. Koch received the 1905 Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery.
Prior to 1890, individual states, rather than Washington, regulated immigration into the United States. While several states maintained their own quarantine rules, Arthur saw a need to broaden the federal government’s powers to intervene in order to avert a potential health crisis. Moreover, Arthur served as president during a depression, when increasing numbers of Americans opposed allowing people to emigrate from European and Asian nations, where tuberculosis was rampant.
Arthur advised states and cities with ports of entry to “resist the power of the disease and to mitigate its severity.” He effectively authorized people to report to the federal government any persons suspected of carrying highly contagious diseases.
It is now “relatively uncommon,” according to Neil Schluger, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, for persons to enter the U.S. with an active case of tuberculosis.
“Most of those persons don’t come legally,” Schluger said. “If you try to legally immigrate, … you actually have to be screened for tuberculosis in your home country, so if you’re coming here on a residence visa, … you have to have an X-ray in your home country and it’s got to show that you don’t have contagious TB before you can come in.”
SOURCE: “CHESTER ALAN ARTHUR: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS,” BY ZACHARY KARABELL (2004)
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