A Select Chronology of Contagious Disease in New York City

A Select Chronology of Contagious Disease in New York City

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For centuries, New York and its residents have faced repeated encounters with deadly infectious disease. This timeline features a selection of important moments in the history of contagious illness that have shaped the lives of New Yorkers and the fabric of the city itself.



New York City is struck by epidemic cholera for the first time. 3500 residents perish. Many point to the prevalence of sinful behavior, particularly among the immigrant poor, as the cause. 



The Croton Aqueduct is completed, delivering fresh drinking water to the residents of lower Manhattan. 


John Snow

The work of London physician John Snow and European sanitarians point to water contaminated by human waste as a source of choleraAmericans increasingly connect disease with unsanitary environments rather than solely to immoral behavior.  


97 Orchard Street

97 Orchard Street is built with a four-stall outdoor toilet or privy, and hydrant delivering Croton water in its outdoor rear yard.


Board of Health

The Metropolitan Board of Health is established. When cholera strikes for the third time, the Croton Aqueduct and the Board of Health help lessen the toll.


Housing Act

the First Tenement House Act passed in New York State. Requirements apply primarily to new construction, and “pre-law” tenements like 97 Orchard Street are mostly exempted.


Robert Koch

German scientist Robert Koch publishes his discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium, proving that specific microorganisms (not moral failing, ethnicity or poverty) are the direct cause of contagious diseases. A year later, in 1883, Koch discovers the bacteria responsible for cholera.


103 Orchard Street

103 Orchard Street is constructed as three separate Old-Law “dumbbell” tenements.


Herman Biggs

Herman Biggs and the Department of Health begin the first formal public health campaign in the country to fight tuberculosis in New York.

August 11 - 1918

The Bergensfjord

The influenza virus behind a developing global pandemic arrives in New York aboard the Bergensfjord, a Norwegian ship.

August 14 - 1918


New York City records its first confirmed case of influenza.

September 15 - 1918

First Death

New York City records its first death from influenza. 

September 17 - 1918


New York’s Board of Health expands the sanitary code to make influenza and pneumonia reportable for first time.

September 19 - 1918

Royal Copeland

City Health Commissioner Royal Copeland tells the New York Times that patients in “private houses or apartments…will be kept in strict quarantine…in boarding houses and tenement…promptly removed to city hospitals.” However, in practice, insufficient numbers of physicians and hospital beds made enforcement difficult.

September 24 - 1918

Public Warning

New York health officials place at least 10,000 posters in subway and railway stations, elevated train platforms, streetcars, store windows, police precincts, hotels, and other public spaces conveying three different messages: instructing people to cover their coughs and sneezes, encouraging people not to spit, and urging New Yorkers to “Help to Prevent the Return of the ‘Flu’ and Pneumonia!”

October 4 - 1918


New York health officials formally announce that an influenza epidemic had gripped the city. 

October 7 - 1918

Emergency Districts

New York Department of Health officials enacted plans to divide the city into 150 emergency health districts, each assigned temporary health centers functioning as clinics as well as headquarters for nurses who provided home health care.

November - 1918

Flattening the Curve

New cases and deaths from influenza decline to level consistent with seasonal flu.


The Last Cycle

Following the last cycle of the nearly two-year influenza pandemic, over 33,000 New Yorkers had died and at least 21,000 children had been orphaned. 


97 Orchard Street Condemed

97 Orchard Street is effectively condemned for non-compliance with fire-proofing and safety alterations required by the Multiple Dwellings Act. 

June 1981


The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that between October 1980 and May 1981 five young men had been diagnosed with a rare lung infection called pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). 

July 3 - 1981

"Rare Cancer"

The New York Times breaks the story of the coming AIDS epidemic in July 1981 with a report titled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” 

The CDC reports that in the prior thirty months, 26 cases of an unusual malignancy, Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), had been diagnosed in New York City and California. These men died of rare diseases enabled by a severely compromised immune systemThe CDC reported that one apparent constant among these first reported cases was their sexual orientation –all were gay men. 


January - 1982

Gay Men's Health Crisis

Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) is formed by community activists to provide services and education to those suffering from an illness many stigmatized as “Gay Cancer” and would soon be termed HIV/AIDS, while government action remains absent. 

September - 1982


The (CDC) uses the term AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) for the first time, describing it as a disease predictive of a defect in cell immunity. 

June - 1982


AIDS was reports in intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Before adequate medical research proved otherwise, the high rates among Haitians lead many to believe that the disease originated in Haiti.

January - 1983


AIDS is reported among the female partners of men who had the disease, establishing a connection to heterosexual intercourse.

September - 1983


The CDC rules-out transmission by casual contact, food, water, air, or surfaces.

April - 1984

The Cause

The National Cancer Institute announces they have found the cause of AIDS: the retrovirus HTLV-III.



The U.S Food and Drug Administration licenses the first commercial blood test to detect antibodies to the virus, making its possible for blood banks to screen the USA blood supply.

New York Republican Diane McGrath calls for mandatory testing of all teachers, food handlers, health care workers, bakers, and prostitutes and the banning of those found to be infected from their trades.

Two local school boards in the borough of Queens launch a boycott demanding that no child with HIV/AIDS be permitted to enter the classroom.

Hospitalized patients suffering from AIDS report that orderlies are refusing to provide them with appropriate care.  


March - 1987


ACT-UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) is founded as a grassroots, direct action organization dedicated to ending the aids pandemic.

FDA approves the first antiretroviral drug, zidovudine (AZT), as treatment for HIV.