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The Barbary Plague sheds light on a period of American history when the fear and reality of foreign-spread contagious diseases gripped a major city and led to the disruption of a burgeoning center of shipping and commerce.
With narrative immediacy fortified by scholarly research, Marilyn Chase recreates San Francisco as it was during the late Victorian age—a melting pot of races and cultures that, nearly destroyed by an earthquake, was reborn, thanks in part to Rupert Blue and other city officials. However, all of this was to be disrupted when the plague first sailed into San Francisco on the steamer Australia, on the day after New Year’s in 1900. Though the ship passed inspection, some of her stowaways—infected rats—escaped detection and made their way into the city’s sewer system. Two months later, the first human case of bubonic plague surfaced in Chinatown.
Chase introduces us to the historical figures of the time, people such as: Quarantine Officer Dr. Joseph Kinyoun, whose diagnosis was correct but whose quarantine efforts led to his being branded an alarmist and a racist, and ultimately to his being forced from his post; and to Dr. Rupert Blue who, when confronted with another outbreak of the plague 5 years later, correctly identified rats and their fleas as the chief carriers of the disease and finally eradicated it.
Chase's synthesis and analysis of the cultural, political, medical, and, ultimately, human forces at play help to give The Barbary Plague a fresh immediacy in a time where similar considerations and fear are now part of the national discussion. Ideal for history of medicine, city life, and urban studies courses.
Praise for The Barbary Plague...
“Outbreaks of disease can catalyze either courage or cowardice in individuals and society. In vivid prose and at a pulse-quickening pace, Marilyn Chase brings to life a largely forgotten story of a time when America’s character was tested. There is much to learn about how to confront uncertainty from this remarkable tale.”
—Jerome Groopman, M.D., author of The Measure of Our Days and Second Opinions
“At a time when fear of anthrax and smallpox are very much in the public consciousness, it’s interesting to go back and look at an outbreak in this country of perhaps the most frightening and deadly of all scourges—the bubonic plague. Everything that we imagine today in our worst nightmares happened in San Francisco in the early part of the twentieth century—a population in denial or panic, politicians refusing to tell the truth, and the sadly inevitable blame on racial grounds. Yet even during the worst days, men like Dr. Rupert Blue rose to the occasion in the most amazing, humane, and courageous ways. This story of the past gives me great hope for the present.”
—Lisa See, author of On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family
"...with her elegant, subtle writing, [Chase] brings alive the human victims, particularly the often-tragic lives of Chinese laborers trying to make a life for themselves in the country they called 'Gold Mountain'."— USA Today
"Chase ... has produced a fascinating portrait of San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century and of the individuals and groups who played major roles when cases of bubonic plague appeared in 1900.... [A] powerful, intimate picture of the city and its inhabitants.... Highly recommended."
—Choice (American Library Association)