PLAGUE AND FIRE by James C. Mohr


Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown
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Three intrepid doctors have absolute authority to battle bubonic plague in 1900 Honolulu, but their policy of burning the houses of the infected results, inadvertently, in a conflagration and a contentious civil crisis.

Mohr (History/Univ. of Oregon), who has previously charted the choreography of physicians and public officials (Doctors and the Law: Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth Century America, 1996, not reviewed), focuses here on the roles of medical professionals in public-health emergencies. When plague cases first appeared in Honolulu in late 1899, no one imagined that scores would die, thousands would be homeless, entire city blocks would be destroyed, and racial relations in the city—ever an issue—would worsen. The author begins with a glimpse of what happened on January 12, 1900 (the day the fire raced through the city), then retreats for half his text to examine a variety of medical and political contexts and to lead us back to his starting point. He explains that researchers had identified the culprit (the pestis bacillus). But no one knew how that bacterium infected humans. Rats were dying in droves, too, but no one suspected a connection. The Hawaiian government was in transition: the US was annexing the islands, but there was yet no official, only an ad hoc, territorial authority. When the plague appeared in Honolulu’s Chinatown, however, three physicians took command to battle both the disease and the fierce forces of various ethnic, racial, and political constituencies (not to mention their own conservative colleagues and a capricious press). Whites deluded themselves initially, believing the disease was attacking only the “unclean” Asians in the de-facto ghettos. One death of an affluent white changed opinions. The physicians became benevolent dictators—condemning property, ordering fumigations and antiseptic showers, organizing evacuations and detention camps, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars from Hawaii’s tiny treasury. Particularly strong chapters near the end describe the actual blaze and its aftermath.

Extensive research, sturdy prose, impressive analysis. (25 halftones throughout)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-19-516231-5
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2004