What was the pest house and what became of it?

Pest House Pond, Pest House Shore, and Pest House Channel in and near Shimmo appear frequently in the newspapers. But the building that gave them their name is long gone.

Communicable diseases, especially smallpox, were an ever-present threat aboard ships and in ports. Nantucketers had a great fear of them, especially after the “Indian Sickness” of 1763-64 killed 222 Nantucket Wampanoags and all but wiped out their community. Quarantine was the only means by which Nantucketers could protect themselves.

Smallpox became less of a threat after the practice of inoculation began in New England the 1720s. Inoculation deliberately induces a mild case of smallpox by introducing material from smallpox pustules into the skin of healthy people. Because the person undergoing inoculation has an active infection, isolation during the process is necessary. Upon recovery, the person who has undergone inoculation is immune to the disease and can safely return to everyday life.

In 1771 the Nantucket selectmen gave permission to Dr. Samuel Gelston to establish an inoculation station on Gravelly Island, an island between Tuckernuck and Muskeget islands that has since washed away. Dr. Gelston had previously operated a similar station in Vineyard Haven. Nantucket’s Quakers believed that inoculation was contrary to God’s will and disciplined Friends who went to Gravelly Island for the process. Nonetheless, many took the risk for the advantage of acquiring immunity to a dreaded disease.

In 1800 Sally Folger wrote a letter about her experience with inoculation. While undergoing it, people slept on straw mattresses, and when it was over, they were thoroughly washed, while the clothes they had worn and the straw mattresses were burned.

By the date of her letter, inoculation was being replaced by a safer process. In 1796 Edward Jenner had discovered how to protect people from small pox by infecting them with cowpox, a related disease. Unlike inoculation, vaccination provides immunity to small pox without inducing an active case.

The threat of communicable diseases was not over, however. Dr. Gelston’s operation on Gravelly Island provided a place for isolation of people deliberately having themselves infected with smallpox. It did not provide safety from people arriving on vessels from elsewhere already sick with smallpox, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases. To isolate them, a “pest house” was built on the Shimmo shore of Nantucket Harbor. People who arrived sick were taken there.

A case in point is a report from the Inquirer and Mirror in 1840: “Five persons, natives of the South Sea Islands, were taken to the Pest House with smallpox, where they died soon after arriving.”

Smallpox got loose on the island in the 1840s and again in 1854–55, killing a number of Nantucketers. The selectmen and the board of health managed it by quarantine of infected people within their homes, even going to the length of erecting a barrier fence around one house and requiring a red flag to be displayed. Of those who died in the 1850s, most were elderly people who apparently had not been vaccinated. One was a child not yet four years old.

One finds references to Nantucket’s pest house from the 1830s, but it is absent from both the 1858 Walling map and the 1869 Ewer map. Only the place names remain.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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