The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco
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The veteran Wall Street Journal science reporter Marilyn Chase’s fascinating account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in late Victorian San Francisco is a real-life thriller that resonates in today’s headlines. The Barbary Plague transports us to the Gold Rush boomtown in 1900, at the end of the city’s Gilded Age. With a deep understanding of the effects on public health of politics, race, and geography, Chase shows how one city triumphed over perhaps the most frightening and deadly of all scourges.
education. His lonely campaign drew jibes that he sought to see women admitted to South Carolina’s famous military academy, the Citadel.9 His bill failed, but a century later, the joke it inspired would come true. The Blue boys and girls—Sallie, Effie, Ida, William, Victor, Rupert, Kate Lilly, and Henriette—toiled in Marion’s public and private schools, studying history and Latin. Of the younger Blues, Victor and Kate were extroverts who sparkled in company, while Rupert and Henriette (called
pursuers. In the scuffle, the assailants fled, disappearing into the night streets of Chinatown.21 After the botched assault, U.S. secretary of state John Hay moved in to shield Wong from violence. Hay formally asked the Chinese minister in Washington to help stop the harassment of “Federal Chinese employees in their official duties.”22 Under the cloak of state department protection, Wong Chung continued his medical rounds unmolested. “Send Blue ASAP” THE AUTUMN OF 1902 saw
floors.3 More stupefying were the rat statistics. Blue’s brigades had set out over 10 million pieces of bait. More than 350,000 rats had been trapped, killed, and collected from bounty hunters. Over 154,000 animals had undergone bacteriologic tests at the Fillmore Street rattery. Most of the vermin, however, were trapped far below the city streets. All told, the total kill was estimated at more than 2 million rats—five times the human population of the city. For months, San Franciscans saw
nights at his desk, marked by moments of ceremony, such as donning his best bib and tucker to wish Happy New Year to the outgoing President Taft on January 1, 1913. He rarely made it home to Marion to see his sisters. His brother Victor and sister-in-law Nellie sent him a gift of Christmas cake, its taste recalling “the days of long ago when I had no responsibilities and few troubles.” He worked through the holiday, confessing, “All seasons and days are alike to me.…”19 Now that he was deskbound,
And it was Blue who put those findings into practice in San Francisco. Once rat fleas were identified as the primary culprits, Blue could spare people the ruinous consequences of quarantine, and focus on killing rats. The personae of Kinyoun and Blue are a study in the making or unmaking of an effective public health leader. Kinyoun had the science and the intellect, but he lacked human relations skills as well as a vision of what public health could bring to suffering populations. Whatever his