The attempt to prevent disease by legislative enactment implies so modern an attitude of mind that one is a little surprised to discover the existence of such a wealth of historical and legal lore as that summarized in a recent study of public health legislation in the states of New York and Massachusetts.*
The earliest colonists in this country appear to have taken vigorous, although, as the event proved, pathetically futile, measures against the great pandemics of yellow fever, cholera and smallpox. These diseases swept over the feeble pioneer settlements with a devastating force that we of this sheltered generation can hardly realize. There were at least ten distinct epidemics of yellow fever in New York in the eighteenth century; there were over 4,000 deaths from yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793 in a population of less than 60,000; over 8,000 persons in Boston in a population of about 19,000 contracted smallpox in a single year, practically all the rest of the population having had the disease previously.
PUBLIC HEALTH LEGISLATION. JAMA. 2009;301(11):1182. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.307