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


The plague came to San Francisco in the early 1900s. San Francisco fought the plague, but it now exists in rodents in the west. This book is a great historical look at turn of the century San Francisco with the Chinese population and the earthquake.

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?!


Although not a book that was riveting, I must admit that I really enjoyed it. It gave me a good sense of what life was like for the doctors in the days of the San Francisco plague. If you like Historical books, this was a good one.


I have a rather strange fascination all things plague-related. This book didn't let me down. Scary details of the bubonic plague as well as a fascinating look at racism and politics in early 20th century San Fransciso. A little bit too black and white on the character analysis, but the cool details about rats, fleas, and bacteriology more than made up for it.


Fascinating tale of bubonic plague's entry into the United States in early 20th century San Francisco, the search for its source and containment, and the social ramifications of the outbreak. Absolutely engaging, and the author -a health and science writer for the WSJ - balances her science and journalistic expertise to write an informative but never intimidating narrative of one of history's most intriguing pandemics. And for those who wonder why plague "no longer exits" on.


Fascinating book about an unknown chapter of San Francisco's history. Don't give up on it - the first part drags, but it really builds up steam as you progress through the story. One of the best accounts of the 1906 earthquake that I have come across.


I bought this all excited to pick up a chapter of my city's history I'd never known about before; unfortunately it was difficult to fish out interesting historical information because the writing style is poor and irritating--I swear multiple chapters repeat the same information nearly verbatim, as if the book were a collected volume of a serialized newspaper investigation, and possibly last week's readers need a recap! This was annoying to the point where I shelved the book unfinished.


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.

David Schwan

Describes the plague outbreak in San Francisco at the turn of 20th century. Scientists were still figuring out how plague passed from person to person. This book describes some of the discoveries related to how it is transmitted. Fascinating read. Great case study in epidemiology.For those who think life 100 years ago was cool, read this book, you will come away with a different view. Parts of San Francisco were quite filthy, The Hunter's Point area was crawling with ten's of thousands of rats.

Tom Darrow

Great book that would appeal to both history and science readers, as well as fans of social history, the Victorian Era and the Progressive movement. The author does a good job at weaving together elements of government involvement, medical terminology, racial clashes and the biographies of supporting charcters in a relatively seemless way.


This was no "And The Band Played On". At a mere 175 pages, it is a footnote compared to ATBPO. It was interesting and informative and parts of it were exactly what I hoped for. At other points in the book, the narrative was repetitive. I believe the author could have made me care more about the main players and maybe gotten an editor to make the prose a little more engaging. Still and overall, if you are interesting in plague, early city history and sanitation, you would be well advised to spend a day or two with this book. Thanks, Jen!


Having lived in San Francisco, I have heard much about the 1906 earthquake and fire. But I had never heard about the plague epidemic that had simmered since 1900 and exploded because of conditions in the aftermath of the quake and fire; nor of the efforts that brought the epidemic under control. And little did I realize that plague that is endemic in wild rodents in the west is a result of this epidemic. The book is very interesting but doesn't seem to focus. It is in some ways a biography of Dr. Rupert Blue who lead the PHS crusade against the plague in San Francisco and who later became the Surgeon General. But it is also a little bit of a history of the PHS in this time period and a little bit about how the "politics of denial, commercial protectionism, and discrimination" can "too often trump science and sound medical judgement". It is interesting to find out that Dr. Blue failed in a campaign to establish national health insurance prior to WWI. Just as Frances Perkins failed during Franklin Roosevelt's tenure as President. How long has this been going on?

David Bales

Interesting book about an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco in 1900 during the city's gilded age/pre-earthquake zenith. It has a great deal of commentary on the racism against the Chinese that was outrageous at that time.

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