Review: The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco

The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco
The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco by Marilyn Chase
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a good bet that even folks who live in San Francisco may not know of the outbreak of bubonic plague the city suffered at the early part of the 20th century. Borne by infected fleas that feasted on the blood of the harbor city’s large rat population, the plague claimed many victims initially in the Chinatown area, then slowly spread to other parts of the city.

This presented the city with not only a public health problem, but also a public relations one: San Francisco’s wealthy merchants were wary of scaring away business. Because of this, the plague claimed many more victims than it would have if it had been fought aggressively at first. The Barbary Plague tells of two men of science and their attempts to curb the infection: one, Joseph Kinyoun, was not the diplomat the times required and was quickly replaced. The other, Rupert Blue, persevered and eventually overcame the reluctance of the city and state government to fight the plague; unfortunately, he wasn’t able to do as much as he wanted to stem the tide of the plague, and as a consequence, it still claims the occasional human victim in the American Southwest thanks to infected squirrels.

At times, the author’s attempts at witty turn of phrase rankle a bit, but she has obtained access to some excellent primary sources, including the city’s Chinese newspapers and the archive of one of Blue’s plague fighters. Overall, The Barbary Plague is an enjoyable enough read, and recommended for those interested in public health.

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