"he works in a diphtheria pesthouse"
Napoleon Bonaparte visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa (1804), by Antoine-Jean Gros
Public DomainNapoleon Bonaparte visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa (1804), by Antoine-Jean Gros - Credit: Musée du Louvre

Pesthouses were hospitals or hostels used for the confinement of persons infected with a pestilential or contagious disease. Before cures for these diseases were known, the primary function of the pesthouse was to quarantine rather than treat patients. Many towns and cities would have at least one pesthouse, accompanied by a nearby cemetery or a waste pond for disposal of the dead.

Diphtheria is a highly contagious disease which attacks the upper respiratory system, resulting in difficulty in breathing and swallowing and eventually death from suffocation or starvation. Hippocrates first described the disease in the 4th century BC, and major epidemics swept through Europe in the 17th century, where it became known as 'the strangling angel of children'. It was not until the 1890s that the first effective diphtheria antitoxins were discovered, and not until 1913 that a successful vaccine for the disease was developed.