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The Barbary Plague : The Black Death in…

The Barbary Plague : The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco (2003)

by Marilyn Chase

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I am a huge fan of books about fighting disease, so this was a great book. Plus, it is more than a micro-history of plague at the turn of the century in San Francisco. It also includes a brief history of the evolution of our understanding of the plague (and some huge discoveries about the disease occurred in the ~8 years that this book covers), a history of San Francisco, a history of Chinese immigration into the area (and the resulting xenophobia), a history of public health and how it evolved, a brief discussion of the 1906 earthquake, an exposé of government corruption, etc, etc. It was fascinating and interesting.

I am giving it five stars because the subject matter was interesting, and the book was very readable (and not too technical in nature - sometimes books about disease can get bogged down in technical detail). If you like reading books about the history of disease, you will definitely like this one. If you are coming to this book hoping for it to be like "The Hot Zone" by Richard Preston (about ebola), you will find that the pace is not quite as brisk. Plague is a terrible disease, and its eruption in San Francisco in 1900 was definitely considered an epidemic, but since it is spread by rat fleas and not as easily by person-to-person contact (though some forms of the disease are highly contagious), some of the edge-of-your-seat fear is not present the same way it is in a book about, say, ebola or smallpox. But I still loved the book and would recommend it to other armchair medical enthusiasts or history buffs. ( )
  slug9000 | Aug 28, 2014 |
I'm a native Californian. From the time I was young, I had a keen interest in history. The experience of Chinese immigrants was largely glossed over in school. The emphasis was, "Chinese built the railroad. A lot of them lived in San Francisco. They dealt with racism and laws prevented immigration for many years, and there weren't many Chinese women. But things are better now!"

The Barbary Plague should be required reading for any Californian. Heck, any American. This book made me so angry at times, and so sad, but it also educated me. I read it for research for my novel, and while I did get relevant data for that purpose, I came out with a whole lot more.

When the plague first settled into San Francisco in 1900, it struck Chinatown first. And almost no one cared. The federal government sent in Quarantine Officer Dr. Joseph Kinyuon. The whites scorned the plague as being an Asiatic disease, something that could only infect inferior peoples; the politicians, from the corrupt city mayor all the way to the governor of California, undermined the investigation because they only saw the potential millions lost due to quarantines and trade blockades. Some went so far as to accuse Kinyuon of planting plague evidence for the sake of his career.

The Chinese themselves thwarted medical officers at every turn. They didn't trust white doctors--with reason--and were horrified at the blasphemy of autopsies and cremation. When Kinyuon was shoved from the city, Dr. Rupert Blue came in and fought tooth and nail to stop the epidemic--and was only taken seriously when whites began to die. It was Blue who read theories from overseas and realized the plague spread by fleas on rats, and he orchestrated a massive campaign to slaughter rats and save the city from devastation. His efforts became all the more vital after the 1906 earthquake, when the ruins and refugee camps created a rodent paradise.

It's nonfiction that makes for a compelling read, as it delves into the complexities of racism, corrupt politics, and the nascent United States medical program. ( )
  ladycato | Mar 14, 2013 |
Rather a disappointment. Like many others here, I was fascinated by the subject matter. An epidemic of the bubonic plague in San Francisco, right at the beginning of the 20th century? Who knew? That sounds like good stuff! But the writing didn't live up to the story. I didn't notice the flowery language that others complained of, but what bugged me what how repetitive the writing was. Some dude got sick, he had buboes, they tried to cover it up, he died, sure enough, an autopsy confirmed plague, then maybe another dude or two got sick, maybe not, then the disease went into hiding, and we waited a couple more months to see what would happen. Then what happened was a repeat, just like before. I don't doubt that this was more or less what happened, but surely there was another way to tell the story.

Still, some fascinating stuff and I'm glad I read it. Now I want to follow it up with a better story about the plague. ( )
  cmbohn | Jun 12, 2011 |
I nearly stopped reading this book during the prologue, but I gave it another ten pages before I gave up. It was horrendously written. The sentence that made me throw in the towel was "Angel Island was his castle and San Francisco Bay was his moat". What I read was one metaphor after another, with no substance whatsoever. ( )
  PokPok | Apr 14, 2011 |
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San Francisco in 1900 was a Gold Rush boomtown settling into a gaudy middle age.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375757082, Paperback)

The veteran Wall Street Journal science reporter Marilyn Chase’s fascinating account of an outbreak of bubonic plague in late Victorian San Francisco is a real-life thriller that resonates in today’s headlines. The Barbary Plague transports us to the Gold Rush boomtown in 1900, at the end of the city’s Gilded Age. With a deep understanding of the effects on public health of politics, race, and geography, Chase shows how one city triumphed over perhaps the most frightening and deadly of all scourges.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:08 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Describes an epidemic of bubonic plague that erupted in turn-of-the-century San Francisco and the efforts of scientists to contain the disease, discover its source, and eradicate it from the city.

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