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 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.

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.


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.

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.


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...


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?


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


Very interesting account of the years spent trying to erradicate the plague from San Francisco. The author wrote in a readable style that kept my interest, and she provided wonderful detail about the discrimination of the Chinese immigrants to San Francisco's Chinatown. And to think this happened before and during and after the great earthquake of 1906!

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