Friday, January 06, 2006

Book Report: The Barbary Plague

It's easy to think of the Bubonic Plague as a medieval affliction only, but it's still around. Cases are reported every year in many countries around the world, including the US. Thankfully, most outbreaks are isolated, and nothing like the what was experienced in San Francisco in the first years of the 20th century.

Starting in 1900 with an outbreak in Chinatown that terrified and terrorized the inhabitants, and reaching its height in the aftermath of the great earthquake and fire or 1906, the Plague was a major threat to public health in the city by the bay.

In The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco,author Marilyn Chase details the history of the outbreak in SF, shows how political in-fighting and back-room shenanigans almost derailed the efforts to protect the city, and explores the lives of those who risked their own health to help protect others.

It's a well-researched and well-written book, which should be a good read for those with an interest in the history of SF, the history of medicine, or looking for examples of how public policy was formed. It's especially intriguing for the glimpse at the racism the Chinese of San Francisco faced in the new century.

I found many of the individuals in the book to be fascinating, including Joseph Kinyoun, a doctor whose lack of political tact led to his being nearly railroaded out of the city, in spite of the fact he was sincere in his efforts to stop the spread of the disease. Another compelling character, about whom I'd like to know more, is "Boss" Abe Reuf, one of those larger-than-life types that make early San Francisco history read like something from a Preston Sturgis film. After placing a hand-picked candidate in as mayor, and accepting payoffs from nearly everyone in town, he was eventually indicted on something like 65 counts of taking bribes.

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