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Old Quarantine Hospital Discovered On Submerged Island Off Florida's Coast

The sunken hospital yields clues to 19th-century yellow fever outbreaks and life in this remote location.

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Science Writer

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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A diver is examining the gravestone of John Greer on the sunken island.

A graduate student from the University of Miami examining the headstone of John Greer, one of the people known to be buried on this sunken island at the end of the 19th century. Image credit: C. Sproul

A team of archaeologists have discovered the remains of a 19th-century quarantine hospital and a small cemetery on a submerged island in the Dry Tortugas national park, near Florida.

The site was discovered in August 2022, by the national park’s cultural resources staff, alongside the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center, the Southeast Archaeological Center, and a University of Miami graduate student while they were conducting a survey. Originally, the structures existed on dry land, but climate change and storms have caused the island to disappear below the waves. 

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The quarantine hospital had been used to isolate and treat yellow fever patients from Fort Jefferson on the nearby island of Garden Key, between 1890 and 1900. Fort Jefferson was one of America’s largest 19th-century forts, and was originally occupied by US soldiers to protect the shipping lanes between the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. Given its geographical location, the site was not only ideal for protection, but it also served as a harbor for passing vessels to restock or find shelter from storms.

An unsigned watercolor of a quarantine hospital and adjoining cemetery an island in the Dry Tortugas
An unsigned watercolor of a quarantine hospital and adjoining cemetery an island in the Dry Tortugas. Image credit: National Park Service


During the American Civil War, the fort was used as a military prison that boasted some prominent inmates among its number, such as Dr Samuel Mudd, who conspired against Abraham Lincoln. Following the war, the fort became a coaling station for warships and the surrounding islands were used for various purposes, including as a lighthouse station, naval hospital, quarantine facility, and a training ground for military personnel. 

Over the years, the population of the fort grew to include the military, prisoners, enslaved people, engineers, and support staff, as well as laborers and their families. But as the population grew, so did the risk of disease. In particular, yellow fever, transmitted by mosquito bite, was a significant issue for the inhabitants. 

The island witnessed several severe outbreaks of the disease, which killed dozens of people during the 1860s and 1870s. Given Garden Key’s limited space, the surrounding islands were used for quarantine hospitals, which were often crudely built. Nevertheless, their existence helped lower the transmission of yellow fever and therefore saved lives. 

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Many of these hospitals ceased to be of use when the military abandoned the fort in 1873, but then some continued to function when the US Marine Hospital Service took over the area between 1890 and 1900. 

According to historical records, dozens of people, mostly soldiers from the fort, were buried in the cemetery on the submerged island, but so far the researchers have only identified one grave. This belonged to a civilian named John Greer who was employed at the fort and died in November 1861. Greer’s cause of death remains unknown, but his grave site has been marked by a particularly prominent slab of greywacke, which is the same type of stone used on the first floor of Fort Jefferson. The slab that has been used to mark Greer’s grave is shaped like a headstone, and his name and date of death are marked on it. 

“This intriguing find highlights the potential for untold stories in Dry Tortugas National Park, both above and below the water,” Josh Marano, maritime archaeologist for the south Florida national parks and project director for the survey, said in a statement. “Although much of the history of Fort Jefferson focuses on the fortification itself and some of its infamous prisoners, we are actively working to tell the stories of the enslaved people, women, children and civilian laborers.”

The work to study and identify other individuals buried on the island, and to learn more about Greer, is ongoing. The hospital and the cemetery have now been identified as archaeological resources, so they will be monitored by members of the South Florida National Parks Cultural Resources Program. 


ARTICLE POSTED IN

humansHumans
  • tag
  • yellow fever,

  • military,

  • discovery,

  • archaeology,

  • History of medicine,

  • quarantine,

  • sunken island

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