A complex tale of medicine, politics, race, and public health.
Reuters senior reporter Randall (The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise, 2016, etc.) works his way through a story that is well-documented in the epidemiological literature but hasn’t received much popular attention. At the end of 1899, bubonic plague broke out in Honolulu, with an unknown number of deaths and panic in its wake. Public health officials on the mainland knew that San Francisco was likely next, and they mounted a campaign of quarantine. Even so, crowded Chinatown, in the heart of the city, saw the first cases. A dilemma followed, with Marine Health Service bureau chief Joseph Kinyoun wrestling with whether to cordon off the area; writes Randall, “any harsh measures that might scare those living in the plague zone into fleeing outside the district would potentially expand the grip of the disease further.” Working against Kinyoun were California’s governor and San Francisco’s mayor, who alternately denied the existence of the outbreak or demanded that it be hushed up, and even members of the Chinese community, who sued to end the quarantine when a plague had not been officially declared. Racism and corruption played their parts. In the end, Kinyoun was replaced with another public health officer, Rupert Blue, who, also against much opposition, was more successful in his campaign of “eliminating hundreds of thousands of rats from the streets and sewers." Chaos returned with the great earthquake that struck the city, and Blue, who ran into trouble with his bosses in Washington, was assigned elsewhere only to return to Randall’s narrative decades later in Los Angeles, where plague had appeared. There are many moving parts to the story, and they don’t always mesh neatly, but the author does good work in revealing the clamorous crash of public and private interests surrounding the outbreak—and, he notes, the bubonic plague still pops up from time to time in the U.S.
A tale that resonates with the outbreak of measles, mumps, and other supposedly contained epidemics today.