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Strange as it may sound, not long ago a large segment of the United States was being terrorized by a flea. Combining medical and social history with a remarkable study of the personalities involved, Marilyn Chase casts a fascinating light on a nearly forgotten time in American history: the hunting down of infected rats and fleas transmitting the deadly bubonic plague.
The history begins with a lumber salesman's death in 1900, setting off a wave of hysteria in San Francisco's Chinatown. The decade that followed was marked by mutual suspicion between Chinese immigrants and their white counterparts, and shameful finger pointing and denials of the existence of a health crisis. Into the maelstrom walked Rupert Blue, an undistinguished doctor appointed to investigate the epidemic by the federal government. Blue had a surprising ability to ease racial tensions and a relentless devotion to finding the cause of the mounting epidemic. His discovery that the transmission of the plague was caused by common fleas led him to erect an extraordinary mission, eradicating millions of rats in San Francisco and saving countless human lives.
Chase's research is formidable, but her literary talent brings this harrowing episode to life with exacting detail, offering a nervous post-9/11 public some historical perspective on our nation's ability to deal with deadly biological threats.
(Spring 2003 Selection)
The plague outbreak and its impact is a big story to tell and, except for some overwriting, Chase tells it with thoroughness and clarity in The Barbary Plague.. — Anthony Day
Chase researched the archives and found family papers still in private hands, allowing her to tell the stories of the public health officials with a lot of new, personal detail. She uncovers the Chinese points of view, especially the individual stories of plague victims, not covered as fully in previous studies. This all makes The Barbary Plague a pleasure to read, full of people, dramatic situations, individual foibles and collective hard work. I closed the book wishing it had been longer. — Judith Walzer Leavitt
Perhaps because of its experience with plague, San Francisco proved different from most cities in the early days of the AIDS epidemic: "When denial or discrimination clouded the country's vision, San Francisco was a model of swift and compassionate care," Chase writes. — Deirdre Donahue
It is, then, more a story about human nature than about disease and medicine. Marilyn Chase tries hard to present it as a medical detective story with dire possibilities resting on the outcome, and since she knows her medicine well (she covers it for the Wall Street Journal) she has assembled a fair amount of evidence. But the most interesting and convincing aspects of her tale are those about fear, deceit and denial, and about the handful of purposeful people who managed to overcome these obstacles. — Jonathan Yardley
In 1900, a ship called the Australia docked in San Francisco, carrying infected rats that launched a plague epidemic in the city, which raged sporadically for five years before it was subdued. Chase, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, argues in this engaging narrative that social, cultural and psychological issues prevented public health officials from curtailing the outbreak. Relying on published sources, diaries and letters, Chase shows how the disease first hit Chinatown and explains that most San Franciscans denied the outbreak, while others blamed the city's Chinese population (city officials hid behind worries about tourism and the city's reputation). But Chase goes beyond sociological analysis in this lively work and focuses on the players. While the first public health official assigned to stem the epidemic, Joseph Kinyoun, was an innovative scientist, Chase shows how he lacked the strategy and tact necessary for the task-his plan to quarantine Chinatown caused as many problems as it solved. Only when Rupert Blue, a new official, was assigned to the case after a second outbreak five years later, was the epidemic quashed. Avoiding pedantry and tediousness, Chase tells a story that highlights the true nature of epidemics-and how employing a combination of acceptance, perseverance and diplomacy are key to solving them. As she notes in her final pages, the parallels with the AIDS crisis are striking, and the lessons worth salting away for any future epidemics. (Mar.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
As San Francisco celebrated the new 20th century, the dread bubonic plague entered its port. This book chronicles its arrival and spread and the protracted battle to eradicate it, led by two very different public health doctors. As with so many epidemics, the efforts of the public health officials were attacked and seriously hampered by those in government and the press who called them alarmists and feared the economic damage publicity could cause. Quarantine officer Joseph Kinyoun first sounded the alarm and battled the early epidemic in Chinatown, but he was unsuccessful, in large part because of his lack of diplomacy. The epidemic became much worse after the great San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906. The subsequent battle was fought, ultimately successfully, by Dr. Rupert Blue and his associates, but not before the disease had infected native rodents in much of the western United States, where it remains and sickens people today. This account by Wall Street Journal reporter Chase is at once a portrait of early San Francisco, the stories of these two very different doctors, and the chronicle of an epidemic. It should appeal to anyone interested in the history of epidemics or in early San Francisco. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/02.]-Marit MacArthur Taylor, Auraria Lib., Denver Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Adult/High School-Chase's knowledge of the city and skill for making scientific concepts accessible to educated lay readers make this snapshot of a relatively unknown event vivid and thought provoking. Bubonic plague entered the port of San Francisco with the 20th century. For the next decade, it defied both medical and political efforts to eradicate it from an urban landscape fraught with ethnic distrust, new money, and old customs. The author offers a clear and telling portrait of the roles played by Chinese merchant societies, the white press, and Sacramento officials that initially enabled the disease to gain a foothold. She then turns most of her attention to detailing the scientific and personal strengths and weaknesses of the national public health officials who worked to determine efficient ways to diagnose, treat, and eventually halt the spread of the disease. In addition to finding readers among students already interested in modern medicine, Chase's book is a fine selection for ethnic studies and political science classes. Although the few photos do little to expand the narrative, the thumbnail descriptions of the disparate lives altered, ended, or detoured by San Francisco's experience with rats, fleas, and disease provide concrete images for readers with any imagination.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Real-life medical thriller providing a slice of history we don't want to repeat. The bubonic plague threatened San Francisco for a decade at the turn of the century. In her debut, Wall Street Journal reporter Chase documents how federal authorities put an end to the epidemic. Public health disasters can only be averted, she learned from her research, if local, state, and federal health agencies work together. When the plague arrived in 1900, racism against Chinese immigrants, its initial victims, kept federal health inspectors from documenting and instituting measures to eradicate the scourge. Then boosters in the Golden State's railroad and agricultural industries stymied federal decontamination efforts, because they didn't want anything to impede California trade. Finally, disputes in Washington agencies bogged down the cleanup. Chase's narrative focuses on two pioneers in American public health, Joseph Kinyon and Rupert Blue, to convey the difficulty of overcoming the public's ignorance about how the plague spread and the importance of education and a good public relations campaign in saving lives. If San Franciscans had listened to self-righteous and rough-edged Kinyon instead of running him out of town on a rail, they would never have needed the brilliant and diplomatic Blue, who saved the city from mass death in the wake of the Great Earthquake, which drove hordes of plague-bearing rats out of their warrens in 1906. Much space is devoted to old-time medicine-rudimentary testing for plague bacteria, transferring blood samples from a human corpse to a guinea pig, inoculating people with serums derived from horses-and sometimes these scenes make for a plodding read. But usually there'ssatisfaction to be found in being lost in Chase's narrative. Blue's meticulous cleanup campaign provides plenty of color as he burns down entire city hospitals and cleans up slaughterhouses teeming with rodents. Armchair historians, San Francisco-philes, and doctors interested in their profession's past will find this particularly gripping.
A pleasure to read, full of people, dramatic situations, individual foibles and collective hard work...The story, 100 years old, has much to teach us about today.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“An involving medical detective story...richly atmospheric [and] consistently enthralling.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Chase, with her elegant, subtle writing, brings alive the human victims, particularly the often-tragic lives of Chinese laborers trying to make a life for themselves.”
“If the folks at Homeland Security read one book this year, let it be Marilyn Chase’s The Barbary Plague, for the way it captures in precise detail how political and business imperatives can impede the battle against a deadly epidemic, in this case the bubonic plague—the fabled Black Death—in old San Francisco. The city’s leaders, even its health department, fought the news of the plague’s arrival more aggressively than the disease itself, despite the deaths of dozens of victims. But Chase’s book is also simply a great story of a long-past time when a few heroic men, armed with only the most basic knowledge of infectious disease, stood up to the powers arrayed against them and, through ingenuity and intuition, at last ran this epidemic to ground.”
—Erik Larson, bestselling author of The Devil in the White City
"Outbreaks of disease can catalyze either courage or cowardice in individuals and society. Chase brings to life a largely forgotten story--in vivid prose and at a pulse-quickening pace--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; Second Opinions; and the forthcoming The Anatomy of Hope (Random House, Spring 2004)
“The Barbary Plague is a thoroughly engrossing tale of mankind’s battle with the most stubborn of foes, infectious disease.... Chase’s vast experience in medical reporting keeps her writing not only accurate but highly entertaining.”
–Dean Edell, M.D., medical TV correspondent for ABC-TV 7, San Francisco, and host of the syndicated radio talk show, The Dr. Dean Edell Show,
“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 20th 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