The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco

ISBN: 0375757082
ISBN 13: 9780375757082
By: Marilyn Chase

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About this book

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.

Reader's Thoughts


I like books where social history meets science meets politics, as in this interesting account of a bubonic plague epidemic in 1900ish San Francisco. The author nicely supports her thesis that racism and commercial interests prolonged the problem much longer than necessary. If you've ever wanted to read a history of urban sanitation or to confirm that squirrels are dangerous (in the American West they are plague carriers and a few hikers are still infected every year), this might be your book.

Claire Webber

Stick through the overwrought text in the first half - as soon as California (and the author) abandon the first health inspector Kinyoun and are introduced history's hero Blue, The Barbary Plague finally takes off. A well researched jaunt into Victorian San Francisco's denial, political grappling, and eventual acceptance of its 1900-1909 plague outbreak.

Jessica Breheny

This is a horribly written book -- purple through and through -- but the subject matter is so interesting, I have stayed with it. Who knew the plague hit San Francisco in 1900? I didn't. It got far worse after the earthquake when the rats bred to B-movie numbers. I recommend this book if you are interested in SF history or epidemics and the politics around them.


A well-researched work of history rendered as a dramatic (some might say florid) thriller. How is bubonic plague spreading and can the public health officials stop it before it's too late? Chase makes the science and policy behind the subject fascinating and the personalities involved vivid. Having lived through the AIDS plague in San Francisco, I found myself getting quite emotionally involved. I raged when reading thatsome businessmen opposed or mocked efforts to control the fast-spreading plague because they worried acknowledging its existence would be bad for business and others used the plague as an excuse to vilify Chinese immigrants. How different were the 1980s when President Reagan chose to ignore AIDS and conservative politicians called for homosexuals to be quarantined?


I have a very big interest in history stories and books based around such things. However this book felt very slow to me and I felt certain things were added and they didnt need to be. It was interesting to understand and find out how the plague did reach San Francisco and how it affected the population but it could be slow and not something that made me not want to put it down.

Beth Cato

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.

melanie berlin

tells the story of the plague that claimed the lives of scores of people (ok maybe like 125) in turn-of-the century (the 20th) san francisco in awesomely gory detail. are my sentences making any sense?!


From 1900 to 1909, the bubonic plague took 190 victims in San Francisco. Beginning in Chinatown (corner of kearney and jackson), the fear of plague spread throughout the city. Public health officials squabbled while the city became rife with the infectious Norway rat, exacerbated by the earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906. First Kinyoun, then Rupert Blue, established sanitary procedures that kept the plague at bay. But the greatest factor that prevented thousands of deaths was the difference in the anatomy between the European flea and its Asian cousin.Interesting look at turn of the century San Francisco's struggle against a disease they didn't understand.

Juliet Doubledee

** spoiler alert ** I found this book to be quite informative, as author Marilyn Chase utilized her skills as a veteran Wall Street Journal science reporter to describe how during the first decade of the 1900's San Francisco fell victim to bubonic and pnuemonic plague. I was never aware of how hard the disease hit my beloved city, nor even that California has been host numerous times to outbreaks. San Francisco during the beginning of the twentieth centure was feeling growing pains much like other young cities, as it developed from a Gold Rush boomtown to an ecomonic powerhouse competing with Seattle and Los Angeles for goods and services. Many saw the thriving port as one of the biggest assets for the city as it opened trade with Asia and Latin America. Unfortunately it was also the entry way for unwanted diseases. Because of this the U.S. Surgeon General sent a representative of the Public Health Services to check each vessel that entered port and its passengers. This was especially important as bubonic plague had been found in India, China, and later Hawaii.On March 6, 1900 the first case of the plague was discovered in Chinatown. This caused political and racial problems. Many politicians did not want to admit that the city was looking at a possible epidemic, so they denied its existence and would not fund scientific research to battle the disease. Also, at this time anti-Chinese feeling ran strong, and the first step taken was to quarantine Chinatown. The Chinese objected, and so did the business community. They didn't care about the rights of the Chineses, but because it was bad for business to have people thinking there was plague in their city or state. The battle between business and science escalated through the governors office, and finally to Washington DC where the Surgeon General got permission from President McKinley to enact antiplague regulations. By April 1901 a clean-up camplaign of Chinatown was undertaken, scouring almost 1,200 houses and 14,000 rooms. In February 1904 the last victim of this first wave of plague died. There had been 126 cases in the San Franisco Bay area and 122 deaths. Unfortunately just two years later when the 1906 earthquake rocked the city, it also stirred up an infected rat population. By this time the local Public Health representative, Rupert Blue, realized it was the rats who carried the diseased fleas. He offered a bounty on rats, so he and his staff could test them for the disease, and chart areas where breeding was taking place and outbreaks occurring. This epidemic was much worse than the first; because of the lack of housing, fresh water, and avaliable food while the city was being rebuilt. By 1909, because of the efforts made by Blue and his staff the disease was contained.I STRONGLY recommend this book to anyone interested in California history.

Anne Hawn Smith

Most people don't know that the US averted a serious nation-wide epidemic in 1900. Social, cultural and psychological issues prevented public health officials from curtailing the outbreak and risked a tragedy for the nation. The plague began in Chinatown and virtually all the buildings had to be destroyed.The book is well-written and worth reading. It gets a little tiresome at the very end, but held my interest the whole way through. One thing I felt was very interesting. The first official from the Health department, Joseph Kinyoun, was an excellent scientist, but was not a good communicator, nor was he at ease in social settings. He was unable to convince the city leaders that there was a serious problem. His successor, Rupert Blue, was a more adept at dealing with politicians and with much persistence, was able to convince the city leaders to take the necessary actions. I find it amazing to think that this country could have experienced a European type plague because of one man's social skills.


I'd been wanting to read a good non-fiction book about the early history of my adopted "home town" of San Francisco, and this definitely fit the bill. (Hah! So to speak.)I'd had no idea that San Francisco had been touched by bubonic plague until I saw this book listed in a few people's shelves here on GoodReads. I also learned a lot about the plague that was interesting.If you're interested in San Francisco, epidemics and/or how society responds to fear, uncertainty and doubt, Doublejack says check it out.

Mary Ann

It's a good bet that even folks who live in San Francisco may not know of the outbreak of bubonic plague the city suffered at the early part of the 20th century. Borne by infected fleas that feasted on the blood of the harbor city's large rat population, the plague claimed many victims initially in the Chinatown area, then slowly spread to other parts of the city. This presented the city with not only a public health problem, but also a public relations one: San Francisco's wealthy merchants were wary of scaring away business. Because of this, the plague claimed many more victims than it would have if it had been fought aggressively at first. The Barbary Plague tells of two men of science and their attempts to curb the infection: one, Joseph Kinyoun, was not the diplomat the times required and was quickly replaced. The other, Rupert Blue, persevered and eventually overcame the reluctance of the city and state government to fight the plague; unfortunately, he wasn't able to do as much as he wanted to stem the tide of the plague, and as a consequence, it still claims the occasional human victim in the American Southwest thanks to infected squirrels.At times, the author's attempts at witty turn of phrase rankle a bit, but she has obtained access to some excellent primary sources, including the city's Chinese newspapers and the archive of one of Blue's plague fighters. Overall, The Barbary Plague is an enjoyable enough read, and recommended for those interested in public health.


Ok - I'm a total sucker for SF fact, most urban history in general. I love the historical element, but the author is WAY TOO flowery, dramatic and overly romanticizes the here: "Chinese poured through the lines, their lean faces awash with joy and relief. For the first time in two weeks, workers returned to their jobs - shelves were restocked, tables set, and hollow bellies filled." Maybe I'm a bit old-school, but please provide the facts M'am...(of which there are hardly any numbers or hard facts.) But - overall it's a good story about a plague that ravaged SF in 1900. Still recommend it...


Every year or so we hear about an instance of the plague in the U.S. This interesting book tells the story of how it got here, the politics of how it was ignored, the men who fought it, and the long term consequences. As usual, political expediency cost the lives of people and enabled the disease to gain a permanent foothold in America.


This book took me a long time to finish, but it was worth it. I learned so much about the early 1900s in San Francisco. I was surprised to learn how much prejudice there was against the Asian people at that time. It's sad when prejudices get in the way of learning about, and iradicating disease. Of course, politics also got in the way of rationalism. I guess the times just don't change all that much. Anyway, it was an interesting read.

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