The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 23 February 2018

The Barbary Plague

The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco

by Marilyn Chase

There is nothing fun about the Bubonic Plague. In the fourteenth century, it killed about a third of Europe's entire population. It wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that its transmission vector, the fleas of infected rats, was fully understood. Before then, plague was viewed with varying degrees of mystical awe. It kills fast, painfully, and leaves a gruesome corpse. The plague isn't eradicated. It still lurks in our landscape. There are occasional cases arising from unlucky interactions with California's ground squirrels: sixteen in that state in 2015. In underdeveloped countries, epidemic still rears its gruesome head, most recently in Madagascar in 2017. Bubonic plague, caught early enough, is now curable with reliable antibiotics (though the Madagascar outbreak suggested a new drug-resistant strain). In earlier times, though, it was an almost certain death sentence, within days of infection.

In the late 19th century, a global pandemic of plague arose from central Asia. It made its way to American shores aboard ships carrying people, goods and rats along the trade routes, first to Hawaii, and then, in 1900, to San Francisco. That city was then at the height of its rowdy Barbary Coast days, a cultural moment captured vividly in this brief, almost urgent history. It was an era before much in the way of industrial hygiene along the routes of our food production. Sewage lines in this post-Gold-Rush boomtown were less than adequate, especially in older poorer parts of the city, most notably Chinatown. It was a less than progressive era in race relations, too, as the early cases of plague in Chinatown convinced even the most scientific of responders that it was a disease confined to Asians. Quarantines were determined on racial lines. The Chinese Exclusion Act was strengthened. This kind of vilification of poor immigrants echoes do this day.

Our heroes were the men of our nascent National Institutes of Health, and the office of the Surgeon General. These were men like Joseph Kinyoun, who followed the then-new science of bacteriology as devised by Louis Pasteur; and like Rupert Blue, a dedicated public servant frustrated by the challenges of public ignorance and the intransigence of the local business community and the press. The threat of plague was, of course, not good for business. The attacks against the scientists trying to quell the outbreak would also be familiar today. The scientists were vilified as making up fake science just to scare the public in their selfish quest for sweet government grant monies. It's never been lucrative to be a government scientist. And the power of corporate money is virtually impossible to overcome. Back then, it was a deadly plague. Today it is the existential threat of climate change.

Eventually, and against significant odds, the plague was beaten back by 1905. The earthquake and fire of 1906, however, and the dire sanitary conditions in the refugee camps, brought a resurgence of plague, cases of which would endure through 1910, when an aggressive rat eradication program finally succeeded in suppressing the disease. Meanwhile, the plague had reached beyond the urban rat population and into the local population of ground squirrels where it endures to this day. If the disease had been taken more seriously, much earlier on in the epidemic, we might not be seeing it across the American west in the 21st century. But that is the nature of plague. It is as much a story of fear and denial as it is of bacteria and death. This book is shot through with the truly grim conditions in an era of San Francisco history that is much romanticized. Some of its descriptions are stomach-turning, both medically and politically. And yet this largely-forgotten century-old story has lessons to teach us now. (Rupert Blue, for example, successful in his sanitation crusade in San Francisco, went on to become the Surgeon General, where, working far ahead of his time, he advocated for a national health insurance.) Marilyn Chase makes these lessons abundantly, but not overzealously clear. The book is fascinating and grim reading. If we could travel in time, we would really want to make sure we could bring our antibiotics with us.

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See Also: [Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue]

[Other Books in or about California]

[Other Books by Women Authors]

[Other Books about Science]

[Other History, Biography and Memoir]