Two scientists’ race to discover the cause of bubonic plague, in an account woven together with the story of the lethal disease’s reappearance in India in the late 20th century and a warning about its continuing presence.
British journalist Marriott (The Lost Tribe, 1997, etc.) writes that when the plague struck Hong Kong in 1894, the British governor’s plea for help in unraveling the mystery of this killer was answered by two scientists: Professor Shibasaburo Kitasato, Japanese discoverer of the tetanus bacillus, and Dr. Alexandre Yersin, a French pioneer in diphtheria research. Kitasato, who arrived with ample equipment and aides, was warmly welcomed by James Lowson, head of the Government Civil Hospital. Yersin came alone and was treated shabbily; Lowson thwarted his efforts to obtain cadavers for study. Marriott’s sympathies are clearly with the underdog, and Yersin’s struggle and achievements occupy center stage here. The bacillus was identified, but only later were fleas on rats associated with the disease. The 1894 Hong Kong outbreak spread across the globe, reaching San Francisco in 1899. In both cities, the white citizenry viewed plague as an Oriental disease and took harsh measures against its victims. An interspersed second narrative focuses on a 1994 outbreak of plague in Surat, India, whose doctors were among the first to flee. This episode is seen largely through the eyes of a Surat newspaperman, and Marriott again shows how rumor and misinformation breed terror, which breeds violence and collapse of order. The take-home message is that plague has never been defeated and constant vigilance is needed, especially since an antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacillus has emerged and it has spread from rats to other species of animals and their fleas. “Plague squats on our doorstep,” he warns, pointing out that 20th-century New York City had two close calls and the metropolis still has an enormous rat population.
An overshadowed scientific reputation revived—and a chilling reminder that the Black Death remains a threat in the 21st century.