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The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Franciscoby Marilyn Chase
Synopses & Reviews
"San Francisco in 1900 was a Gold Rush boomtown settling into a gaudy middle age. . . . It had a pompous new skyline with skyscrapers nearly twenty stories tall, grand hotels, and Victorian mansions on Nob Hill. . . . The wharf bristled with masts and smokestacks from as many as a thousand sailing ships and steamers arriving each year. . . . But the harbor would not be safe for long. Across the Pacific came an unexpected import, bubonic plague. Sailing from China and Hawaii into the unbridged arms of the Golden Gate, it arrived aboard vessels bearing rich cargoes, hopeful immigrants, and infected vermin. The rats slipped out of their shadowy holds, scuttled down the rigging, and alighted on the wharf. Uphill they scurried, insinuating themselves into the heart of the city." The plague first sailed into San Francisco on the steamer Australia, on the day after New Year's in 1900. Though the ship passed inspection, some of her stowawaysinfected ratsescaped detection and made their way into the city's sewer system. Two months later, the first human case of bubonic plague surfaced in Chinatown. Initially in charge of the government's response was Quarantine Officer Dr. Joseph Kinyoun. An intellectually astute but autocratic scientist, Kinyoun lacked the diplomatic skill to manage the public health crisis successfully. He correctly diagnosed the plague, but because of his quarantine efforts, he was branded an alarmist and a racist, and was forced from his post. When a second epidemic erupted five years later, the more self-possessed and charming Dr. Rupert Blue was placed in command. He won the trust of San Franciscans by shifting the government's attack on the plague from the cool remove of the laboratory onto the streets, among the people it affected. Blue preached sanitation to contain the disease, but it was only when he focused his attack on the newly discovered source of the plague, infected rats and their fleas, that he finally eradicated ittruly one of the great, if little known, triumphs in American public health history. With stunning narrative immediacy fortified by rich research, Marilyn Chase transports us to the city during the late Victorian agea roiling melting pot of races and cultures that, nearly destroyed by an earthquake, was reborn, thanks in no small part to Rupert Blue and his motley band of pied pipers.
The Australia sailed into, the port of San Francisco on the day after New Year's, 1900. The steamer passed an inspection, but some of her stowaways — infected shipboard rats — escaped detection and made their way into the city's sewer system. Two months later, the first human case of bubonic plague erupted in Chinatown.
Quarantine officer Joseph Kinyoun confirmed the diagnosis and placed the Chinese under strict quarantine. Kinyoun was a gifted bacteriologist, but he lacked the finesse his position demanded — he was branded an alarmist and roundly mocked by the press. So, when a second epidemic erupted five years later, Dr. Rupert Blue was placed in command. He and Colby Rucker, his charming right-hand man, won the trust of San Franciscans and preached sanitation to contain the disease. But it was when he discovered the source of the plague — fleas on the city's rats — that he finally eradicated it.
For almost twenty years, Marilyn Chase has covered medical science for The Wall Street Journal, and she brings a deep understanding of the effects of politics, race, and geography on public health, especially in her hometown of San Francisco. With stunning narrative immediacy, fortified by rich research, The Barbary Plague transports us to the city during the end of the gilded age — a roiling melting pot of different races and cultures, nearly destroyed by an earthquake and then reborn, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts of Rupert Blue and his motley crew of pied pipers.
About the Author
Marilyn Chase, a longtime reporter for The Wall Street Journal, covers medical science and health care, currently focusing on infectious-disease outbreaks and bioterrorism. An honors graduate of Stanford Uni- versity who also holds a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, Chase lives with her family in San Francisco.
Table of Contents
The year of the rat — "A lively corpse" — The boy from Catfish Creek — Hiding the dead — A new quarantine — The wolf doctor — White men's funerals — Seal of silence — New blood — The bite of a flea — Wong Chung, detective — "Send blue ASAP" — The perimeter widens — The seamstresses — Earthquake — "Comfort the people" — The rattery — "Ain't it awful?" — The pied piper.
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Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » History of Medicine