Dan Brown’s Inferno, Bio-Plagues, Quarantine, and Ebola

One of the bits of incidental information we learned from Dan Brown’s 2013 novel, Inferno, is that the English-language word “quarantine” comes from the Italian word quaranta, meaning forty, which is the number of days ships were required to be isolated at sea outside the Venetian harbor before passengers and crew could go ashore during the 17th century Black Death/bubonic plague epidemic that ravaged Europe. Brown’s fictional character, Robert Langdon, remembers this bit of trivia while in Venice contemplating the new plague he believes is about to be unleashed upon the world owing to the biotech genius/bad guy Zobrist’s decision to try to save the planet from itself on his own.

With plagues, epidemics, virology, and quarantines in the news every day currently as a result of heightened awareness of the ebola virus, we were reminded of this bit of Dan Brown trivia. And while most experts believe that 21 days is appropriate for ebola quarantines, there are a few voices in the research community who have begun to suggest that something longer may be needed…if not the fully 40 days of a 17th century quarantine, then four weeks instead of three.

While there is no connection to ebola in Inferno, Brown does suggest many of the themes and issues that are being discussed in response to the ebola crisis today. For more on plagues and pandemics in thrillers, the UK’s Guardian offers a good list of books.

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