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Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague

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For Chinese immigrant Wong Chut King, surviving in San Francisco meant a life in the shadows. His passing on March 6, 1900, would have been unremarkable if a city health officer hadn’t noticed a swollen black lymph node on his groin—a sign of bubonic plague. Empowered by racist pseudoscience, officials rushed to quarantine Chinatown while doctors examined Wong’s tissue for For Chinese immigrant Wong Chut King, surviving in San Francisco meant a life in the shadows. His passing on March 6, 1900, would have been unremarkable if a city health officer hadn’t noticed a swollen black lymph node on his groin—a sign of bubonic plague. Empowered by racist pseudoscience, officials rushed to quarantine Chinatown while doctors examined Wong’s tissue for telltale bacteria. If the devastating disease was not contained, San Francisco would become the American epicenter of an outbreak that had already claimed ten million lives worldwide. To local press, railroad barons, and elected officials, such a possibility was inconceivable—or inconvenient. As they mounted a cover-up to obscure the threat, ending the career of one of the most brilliant scientists in the nation in the process, it fell to federal health officer Rupert Blue to save a city that refused to be rescued. Spearheading a relentless crusade for sanitation, Blue and his men patrolled the squalid streets of fast-growing San Francisco, examined gory black buboes, and dissected diseased rats that put the fate of the entire country at risk. In the tradition of Erik Larson and Steven Johnson, Randall spins a spellbinding account of Blue’s race to understand the disease and contain its spread—the only hope of saving San Francisco, and the nation, from a gruesome fate.


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For Chinese immigrant Wong Chut King, surviving in San Francisco meant a life in the shadows. His passing on March 6, 1900, would have been unremarkable if a city health officer hadn’t noticed a swollen black lymph node on his groin—a sign of bubonic plague. Empowered by racist pseudoscience, officials rushed to quarantine Chinatown while doctors examined Wong’s tissue for For Chinese immigrant Wong Chut King, surviving in San Francisco meant a life in the shadows. His passing on March 6, 1900, would have been unremarkable if a city health officer hadn’t noticed a swollen black lymph node on his groin—a sign of bubonic plague. Empowered by racist pseudoscience, officials rushed to quarantine Chinatown while doctors examined Wong’s tissue for telltale bacteria. If the devastating disease was not contained, San Francisco would become the American epicenter of an outbreak that had already claimed ten million lives worldwide. To local press, railroad barons, and elected officials, such a possibility was inconceivable—or inconvenient. As they mounted a cover-up to obscure the threat, ending the career of one of the most brilliant scientists in the nation in the process, it fell to federal health officer Rupert Blue to save a city that refused to be rescued. Spearheading a relentless crusade for sanitation, Blue and his men patrolled the squalid streets of fast-growing San Francisco, examined gory black buboes, and dissected diseased rats that put the fate of the entire country at risk. In the tradition of Erik Larson and Steven Johnson, Randall spins a spellbinding account of Blue’s race to understand the disease and contain its spread—the only hope of saving San Francisco, and the nation, from a gruesome fate.

30 review for Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague

  1. 4 out of 5

    Aimee Dars

    Until reading Black Death at the Golden Gate, I didn't realize that San Francisco suffered not just one but two plague outbreaks in the early 1900s. Yet, efforts to eliminate the scourge were hampered by multiple factors. Joseph Kinyoun, the first doctor posted by the Marine Medical Service, the federal agency then with jurisdiction over health matters, alienated local politicians with his arrogant attitude. Plus, at this time, the germ theory of medicine was just beginning to be accepted. City and state leaders r Until reading Black Death at the Golden Gate, I didn't realize that San Francisco suffered not just one but two plague outbreaks in the early 1900s. Yet, efforts to eliminate the scourge were hampered by multiple factors. Joseph Kinyoun, the first doctor posted by the Marine Medical Service, the federal agency then with jurisdiction over health matters, alienated local politicians with his arrogant attitude. Plus, at this time, the germ theory of medicine was just beginning to be accepted. City and state leaders resisted the diagnosis of plague when residents of Chinatown began dying with the telltale symptoms, including buboes, because they didn't want to inhibit the city's growth. Residents of Chinatown refused to cooperate because they feared officials would raze their neighborhood. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens believed whites were immune. Only when Dr. Rupert Blue replaced Dr. Kinyoun, a more amiable administrator—and when whites also started falling victim to the disease—did officials cooperate to rid the city of the plague. Thought safe from the crisis, Dr. Blue was reassigned, but the earthquake of 1906 created a new emergency. David Randall's book is a well-written, well-researched, and engaging book that reveals this hidden pocket of medical history while showing how powerful political interests, greed, and racism can undermine attempts to save the public.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    Such a deep subject and over quite a span of time- this was supremely researched. The only star it loses is that it sidetracked to Gold Rush and other historical background context a bit more than was necessary, IMHO. But all told the title is the core of this book. Oh the early 1898-1903 "fights" between the individuals and the politico "eyes" (BOTH) of the two highest officials! And the obscuring of the reality to the populace or even to the numbers or locations because o Such a deep subject and over quite a span of time- this was supremely researched. The only star it loses is that it sidetracked to Gold Rush and other historical background context a bit more than was necessary, IMHO. But all told the title is the core of this book. Oh the early 1898-1903 "fights" between the individuals and the politico "eyes" (BOTH) of the two highest officials! And the obscuring of the reality to the populace or even to the numbers or locations because of the disorganization and just plain selfishness of the "know betters"! It reminds me of the politico "eyes" of the present which allow infectious disease to stream into the country without the stringent measures required at all and at every time because it doesn't fit their "compassionate" politico agenda. Then, like now, the politicians and officials druthers came/ come first. And people continued to die. It was the most remarkable 5 star portion within the last 1/3rd, in the story of Rupert Blue in particular. I had never heard of the man. What a true heroic life he lead. And what sacrifices and disdaining rejections he suffered for his unrelenting truth telling. And rat wars he conducted against huge and always ridiculed push back. Not to speak of the loneliness! Only the quirks of the fleas saved 100,000's (100's dying instead of 100,000's) and we still get about 7 deaths a year in the western USA presently. Squirrels can carry it too. The big Earthquake seems to have put the Bubonic Plague in the shade, so to speak, historically re San Francisco. It sure shouldn't have. Not for the great numbers it killed then and since. Lies, lies, lies and cover ups to disease outcomes and sources with their paths-alive and well within S.F. presently-just as the feces piles and the rats are. For the most delicate, this book is not politically correct, IMHO. Racial projection and laws, treatments and consequences for a number of issues, like quarantine- very unequal as well.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Raughley Nuzzi

    This is a really engaging pop-history of science covering a series of Plague outbreaks in California at the turn of the last century. It was remarkable to see today's headlines reflected in the issues of 1898 San Francisco, from the anti-vaxxers deriding the work of scientists, to an executive blind to objectivity in favor of political expediency, to an anti-immigrant fervor against unwashed masses, to hyperbolic claims and counter-claims of fake news. The story sometimes reads like a This is a really engaging pop-history of science covering a series of Plague outbreaks in California at the turn of the last century. It was remarkable to see today's headlines reflected in the issues of 1898 San Francisco, from the anti-vaxxers deriding the work of scientists, to an executive blind to objectivity in favor of political expediency, to an anti-immigrant fervor against unwashed masses, to hyperbolic claims and counter-claims of fake news. The story sometimes reads like a slowly unfolding horror movie with a mysterious silent killer lurking the streets of San Francisco while doctors and scientists do their level best to thwart its efforts. There were Jack-the-Ripper vibes and I could almost picture a modern police procedural in the description of Rupert Blue's map marked with red X's for every plague victim. It's a fascinating peek back just 120 years to a time when germ theory had only recently been adopted by the medical community (to say nothing of the public), but antibiotics were yet to be developed. San Francisco was teeming with plagued rats under its wooden sidewalks and packed-dirt basements and use of microscopes by physicians was seen as a quaint hobby. Technologically, we've come a long way since then, but in many ways, we're still stuck in an 1898 mentality. Overall, well-written, well-narrated, and extremely interesting!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    A fascinating, engrossing, and at times downright enraging look at the spread of bubonic plague in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. The book follows how two doctors recognized what was going on and how one was let down turn after turn, allowing the disease to spread because of inadequate funding and support -- as well as rampant xenophobia and racism -- while the other doctor was able to make inroads and discover that it was a specific type of flea that spread the disease to rats a A fascinating, engrossing, and at times downright enraging look at the spread of bubonic plague in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. The book follows how two doctors recognized what was going on and how one was let down turn after turn, allowing the disease to spread because of inadequate funding and support -- as well as rampant xenophobia and racism -- while the other doctor was able to make inroads and discover that it was a specific type of flea that spread the disease to rats and then onto people. He helped develop a public health system and ways to combat the further spread of plague (even though anyone who has spent time in the west or southwest knows it exists still, and that's touched on here a bit in regards to the wild squirrels). Randall doesn't shy away from the realities of racism and classism, and he does a great job framing the situation in San Francisco with the greater things going on in the US and around the world at the same time. The earthquake is covered and offers sort of the ah ha moment of figuring out why the disease was spreading the way it was, followed later by further understanding of its spreading in Los Angeles following World War I and the Spanish Influenza. The history of disease, and plague especially, is fascinating to me, and Randall writes the history in a compelling, engaging manner. Readers who dig this and are open to reading nonfiction for youth would do well with Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America as well, which is how I was already aware of the history of the plague in America.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Meg

    Remember the Middle Ages with all of its death-by-pandemic? This is a true account of when the Bubonic plague hit the United States at the turn on the last century. For years, one of my favorite books and reading experiences for book club was Steven Johnson’s GHOST MAP. I’ve been searching for something to scratch that itch ever since, but hadn’t found anything close enough... until now. Author David Randall tells a fascinating story about the race to discover the cause and cure, with an el Remember the Middle Ages with all of its death-by-pandemic? This is a true account of when the Bubonic plague hit the United States at the turn on the last century. For years, one of my favorite books and reading experiences for book club was Steven Johnson’s GHOST MAP. I’ve been searching for something to scratch that itch ever since, but hadn’t found anything close enough... until now. Author David Randall tells a fascinating story about the race to discover the cause and cure, with an element of racism to foul things up even further, all set on the Pacific seaboard of the United States. This is one of those “how have I never heard about this?!” stories from history.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Fredrick Danysh

    A well written history of the plague's appearance in Hawaii and San Francisco as well as the efforts to combat it at the advent of the twentith century. The development of the Public Health Service is chronicled as well as the personalities of the doctors involved. The ethnic and financial bias of the period is also well documented. This was a free review copy obtained through Goodreads.com.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    A devastating disease, an apathetic and greedy local government, and an unlikely hero. Black Death at the Golden Gate is a shocking tale of a plague outbreak in turn of the century California, an event that had previously been buried in America's history. David K. Randall paints a vivid picture of the chilling events from San Francisco, using a multitude of sources to give the readers a true understanding of who these men facing the Black Death were, and what they stood for. Randall d A devastating disease, an apathetic and greedy local government, and an unlikely hero. Black Death at the Golden Gate is a shocking tale of a plague outbreak in turn of the century California, an event that had previously been buried in America's history. David K. Randall paints a vivid picture of the chilling events from San Francisco, using a multitude of sources to give the readers a true understanding of who these men facing the Black Death were, and what they stood for. Randall does an amazing job at pointing out that history isn't just black and white; no person is either "good" or "bad." You learn each character's strength, but also their faults. I am often frustrated that authors leave the less pretty information out to make a more compelling hero. Randall absolutely came through, providing the whole picture. This read is fascinating, shocking, chilling, and in the end, encouraging. It is an absolute must read!!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Pamela

    4.5 stars. A historical medical mystery following two doctors who recognized plague when it came to the US and had to fight politicians, business interests, and rampant racism and xenophobia in trying to control the disease. Because of all the pushback the doctors and the Marine Medical Service encountered, it took too long to make the connection to rats and fleas, and now western squirrels also carry the disease (as anyone who has been to a park near Lake Tahoe can tell you; there are signs war 4.5 stars. A historical medical mystery following two doctors who recognized plague when it came to the US and had to fight politicians, business interests, and rampant racism and xenophobia in trying to control the disease. Because of all the pushback the doctors and the Marine Medical Service encountered, it took too long to make the connection to rats and fleas, and now western squirrels also carry the disease (as anyone who has been to a park near Lake Tahoe can tell you; there are signs warning people to stay away from plague-bearing squirrels). As noted in the last sentence, “ ... the disease remains hidden along the wide open horizon of the West, where it waits to once again make a jump into the human population.”

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    A history book that reads nothing like one; I was engaged by Randall's writing. The book's subject, the Plague, is accompanied by additional topics of racism, corrupted politics and media, and negative scientific attitudes which, unfortunately, don't feel as distanced as they should.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Christy

    As an RN who minored in history, this book was right up my alley. Prior to picking up the book, I did not know about this struggle to eradicate bubonic plague on the West Coast in (fairly) contemporary times. So, this book read like a mystery. The book details the timeline between patient zero through through the nail biting peak and ultimate end of the scourge in San Francisco. At the time of patient zero, the route of transmission and the vector of Yersinia pestis had not been identified. Davi As an RN who minored in history, this book was right up my alley. Prior to picking up the book, I did not know about this struggle to eradicate bubonic plague on the West Coast in (fairly) contemporary times. So, this book read like a mystery. The book details the timeline between patient zero through through the nail biting peak and ultimate end of the scourge in San Francisco. At the time of patient zero, the route of transmission and the vector of Yersinia pestis had not been identified. David Randall reminds us, though, that bacteria Yersinia pestis is still around (sorry/not sorry, rodents) so we should not get too complacent. The book has lots of engrossing sub-plots including widespread bigotry and cover-ups by the media and local governments. The evolving profession of medicine (late 1800s to early 1900s) and understanding of science make for interesting backstories. The true heroes in this book are science and the federal public health officers. I got this book gratis from Goodreads.com in exchange for my honest review. I recommend this book to anyone interested in science, history, medicine, infectious disease, public health, rodentia, San Francisco, or non-fiction books that read like mystery. If you liked, “The Great Influenza,” you’ll love “Black Death at the Golden Gate.”

  11. 4 out of 5

    Angus McKeogh

    For such a hair-raising topic this was about as boring as it gets. A vast topic that seemed to be done with explication in a couple hundred pages but yet the book went on for a hundred or so more. Loads of less important digressions and uninteresting footnotes along the way. Unfortunately I’ve read some other books about diseases that were 5-stars; this was not one of them.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Caitlyn

    This is a fascinating history of the efforts of public health officials to prevent the spread of bubonic plague in San Francisco in the early 1900s. Efforts were fraught with prejudice, political maneuvering and corruption, bacteriology as a new science, and the discovery that the plague was spread by fleas. It’s the history of San Francisco, of California, and the newly formed federal public health. It regards the sociology of medicine, and science deniers. The book is written for the lay perso This is a fascinating history of the efforts of public health officials to prevent the spread of bubonic plague in San Francisco in the early 1900s. Efforts were fraught with prejudice, political maneuvering and corruption, bacteriology as a new science, and the discovery that the plague was spread by fleas. It’s the history of San Francisco, of California, and the newly formed federal public health. It regards the sociology of medicine, and science deniers. The book is written for the lay person and is a quick, easy, and fascinating read.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Weixiang

    The roots of racism towards Chinese immigrants during the late 1800s is very much new to me. I've not read much stories, analysis, historical events of how the white devils treated the Chinese during the time of the Chinese exclusion act, nor during the transcontinental railroad building. It's nice how this book was the first book to introduce me into that world of racism, from a world of eugenical thinking. This book was a great background on how the Chinese was treated during that t The roots of racism towards Chinese immigrants during the late 1800s is very much new to me. I've not read much stories, analysis, historical events of how the white devils treated the Chinese during the time of the Chinese exclusion act, nor during the transcontinental railroad building. It's nice how this book was the first book to introduce me into that world of racism, from a world of eugenical thinking. This book was a great background on how the Chinese was treated during that time, and the entire reading was similar to how the Soviet union treated the cover up of Chernobyl. It was all too close how the black death would've come into the world of the golden mountains before the dawn of the Flu virus.

  14. 5 out of 5

    clare

    "On the eve of the modern era, one of the most feared diseases in human history returned without warning and unleashed death on a scale not seen in centuries." pg. 4 I really enjoyed the narrative style Randall has going on here. The ability to build suspense in nonfiction is something that I admire. The story is repetitive but it never feels repetitive. He takes care to name every plague victim individually, most of whom were previously erased by racist science. It's very much restorative "On the eve of the modern era, one of the most feared diseases in human history returned without warning and unleashed death on a scale not seen in centuries." pg. 4 I really enjoyed the narrative style Randall has going on here. The ability to build suspense in nonfiction is something that I admire. The story is repetitive but it never feels repetitive. He takes care to name every plague victim individually, most of whom were previously erased by racist science. It's very much restorative history. I wasn't expecting to like this as much as I did. This is another instance where I wish goodreads would allow us halves, because I would give it a 4.5.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gerry

    Randall writes well, and kept his narrative moving along compellingly. Who knew that not only had bubonic plague actually occurred in 20th century America, but that it still exists to this day, especially in the western part of the country? What prevented its eradication was primarily a combination of racism and greed, as politicians fought to maintain a cloak of secrecy over the outbreak lest the economy of their city be damaged.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Excellent read. Nothing has changed in 119 years. Hatred of immigrants. Politics corrupt and criminal. People in charge trying their hardest to destroy anyone who they feel may threaten them and trying to get more power and funding.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ari Odinson

    I received an ARC for this book in return for an honest review. I apologize it took me so long. I just found it hard to read this book. Maybe it was because I wanted more of a science POV. I don’t know what I wanted, but this book simply was not for me. It felt too drawn out in moments and a bit dull. While the information is important, I just didn’t care for it and prefer a handful of other history books about infectious diseases and their societal impact.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Queenie

    I received an ARC of this book through a Goodreads Giveaway. I was so caught up in the plot and characters that I had to keep checking to see if this was really a history book. The characters are fascinating. Not only are we told what they did, but who they were as husbands, friends, employers. Getting equal spotlight as the characters, is the city of San Francisco. I learned many new things about the popular tourist destinations in the city. Overall, if you enjo I received an ARC of this book through a Goodreads Giveaway. I was so caught up in the plot and characters that I had to keep checking to see if this was really a history book. The characters are fascinating. Not only are we told what they did, but who they were as husbands, friends, employers. Getting equal spotlight as the characters, is the city of San Francisco. I learned many new things about the popular tourist destinations in the city. Overall, if you enjoy suspense, travelogs and/or science, this is a great read!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    I recently finished listening to The Black Death, a lecture series by Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, and this book seemed like the next logical thing to pull out of my to-read list. It was originally recommended to me a bookstore cashier while we were chatting about history books. They'd mentioned that history allows us to learn more about things aren't necessarily covered in a history class, and used the example of the plague in California as an example. And boy was Black Death at the Golden Gate an enligh I recently finished listening to The Black Death, a lecture series by Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, and this book seemed like the next logical thing to pull out of my to-read list. It was originally recommended to me a bookstore cashier while we were chatting about history books. They'd mentioned that history allows us to learn more about things aren't necessarily covered in a history class, and used the example of the plague in California as an example. And boy was Black Death at the Golden Gate an enlightening book. A narrative of a relatively small scale, but persistent epidemic (I mean this in comparison to the medieval epidemics I just got done listening to, where somewhere between 30ish% to 70ish% - with an average of about 50% - of various populations across pretty much all of Europe and the Mediterranean died) in California, mostly in San Francisco. While (again, comparatively) there were few deaths, Black Death at the Golden Gate does an admirable job of creating the tone of panic and desperation that was felt by public health officials, as well as the recounting the triumph of their efforts. Medical science, especially public health, is pretty much a thankless field, as the focus is prevention. If you have a disease outbreak, that means public health has failed and they'll take all the heat for it. But when there is no outbreak, or when further spread of a disease is halted, then begins the blame game and there is usually very little thanks. Victory is defined by an absence of terrible circumstances, and that lack of terror and death usually simply passes unnoticed by most of the population. After all, as far as they're concerned, life just continued with little or no changes. Because of this, Black Death at the Golden Gate is really a book about the general state of public health efforts and what those efforts look like when they succeed. This is a great book. It is one that I happy to have gotten a recommendation for and subsequently read, and it a book that I would be happy to recommend in turn.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kristina Harper

    This is a fascinating account of bubonic (and pneumonic) plague outbreaks in San Francisco at the start of the 20th century, along with the doctors who fought to control and eradicate the disease, and the politicians and press who initially fought them every step of the way to protect their business interests. It’s also a look at the filth and lack of sanitation endemic to San Francisco before and after the Great Quake. A really interesting read.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Vladimir Putin

    Caough i have plag

  22. 5 out of 5

    Leigh Anne

    Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait! Oh America. You were so wild in the early 20th century, what with your complete ignorance of bacteriology and racist pseudo-science. It nearly got you all killed, too, when bubonic plague, of all things, turned up in San Francisco. Completely ignorant of how diseases actually work, you nearly started a pandemic. Lucky for you, a few good scientists fought to drag you into the modern medical age. Said scientists, Joseph Kinyoun and Rupert Blue Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait! Oh America. You were so wild in the early 20th century, what with your complete ignorance of bacteriology and racist pseudo-science. It nearly got you all killed, too, when bubonic plague, of all things, turned up in San Francisco. Completely ignorant of how diseases actually work, you nearly started a pandemic. Lucky for you, a few good scientists fought to drag you into the modern medical age. Said scientists, Joseph Kinyoun and Rupert Blue, played important roles in halting the plague. Kinyoun, though first on the scene, was not nearly as effective because his bedside manner left a lot to be desired. This is an important lesson for educated people to learn: you might be right, but if you use your intelligence as a club instead of a bridge, nobody's going to listen to you...which is exactly what happened. Kinyoun was a brilliant doctor, exiled to the West Coast by a jealous government superior, so he wasn't thrilled to be there in the first place. As a result he made a lot of social faux pas, mainly being a cranky recluse instead of making nice with city officials. When plague turned up, and he identified it, he had a hell of a time convincing San Francisco's ruling elite and press that they were up shit creek, because of all the bridges he burned. Kinyoun, however, was incredibly stubborn -- a far lesser person would've given up trying a lot sooner -- and he fought tooth and nail to keep the plague in check, mostly succeeding. Besides political failures, other forces in play that kept Kinyoun from completely eradicating plague were things you sadly still find in the 21st century: a mistrust of scientists and doctors, newspapers that played ball with government and printed "fake news," anti-vax sentiment, and --worst of all - virulent racism that blamed Chinese immigrants for bringing and spreading plague. Never mind that America, up to the first few decades of the 20th century, was absolutely FILTHY. Hand-washing? Not a thing. Garbage and rats everywhere. Poor personal hygeine. It was truly a hot mess. Enter Rupert Blue, just as good a doctor, but with a much better bedside manner. Blue, a thoughtful, empathetic guy as well as a good scientist, followed advances in bacteriology as closely as Kinyoun did; the difference was, he knew how to talk to people and make them understand, even people who thought bacteriology was nonsense. Blue's greatest success was making inroads into the Chinese community and convincing them to accept prophylactic treatment that saved many lives...and kept white people from burning Chinatown to the ground. Even with a willing city behind him, however, Blue had a hell of a time defeating plague. Arguably, he never entirely did: after his first city-wide cleaning/demolition/garbage cleaning/rat killing spree, Blue returned to San Francisco repeatedly as tiny pockets of plague broke out in and near the city. To this day there is still plague in America, and if that doesn't scare the bejeezus out of you, I honestly don't know what does. Thanks to the bacteriologists, however, who persisted in the face of derision, we have treatments for it now. Ironically, it was influenza, not bubonic plague, that turned out to be the scourge of the early 20th century. It's easy to laugh at these ignorant folks who resisted science and progress, but if you stop to consider that we STILL don't know how to fight flu properly -- thanks in part to the alarming anti-scientific thinking that's returned with a vengeance -- it stops being funny very fast. This thrilling tale of American medical history reads like a novel, and belongs in all library collections. A good pick not just for folks who like science writing, but readers who enjoy Stephen King and Mira Grant, as the element of danger-via-disease has cross-over appeal.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Kennedy

    In the acknowledgements to his book, David K. Randall tells us the genesis of his idea to write about the bubonic plague in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century. "This book," he says, "began with an angry letter written by a homesick man." In Mr. Randall's last book, "The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise," a businessman who spends considerable time in San Francisco writes to his wife that the plague is rumored to be attacking the city, "the wicked In the acknowledgements to his book, David K. Randall tells us the genesis of his idea to write about the bubonic plague in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century. "This book," he says, "began with an angry letter written by a homesick man." In Mr. Randall's last book, "The King and Queen of Malibu: The True Story of the Battle for Paradise," a businessman who spends considerable time in San Francisco writes to his wife that the plague is rumored to be attacking the city, "the wickedest place I ever saw." Mr. Randall runs with this one sentence and, from it, crafts a fascinating book. It's the kind of ah-ha moment every writer hopes for! His story follows the trajectory of the plague and how it spread due to political interference, fawning newspapermen, anemic public health measures and a lack of medical knowledge of the disease and its origins. The germ theory of illness was still inadequately understood and not widely accepted and politicians were eager to squash the spread of information rather than of the disease, so as not to tarnish the reputation of the boom town. Identifying the cause of the plague was particularly important, as there were no effective treatments at the time. Antibiotics were yet to come along. I was astonished at the level of detail the author was able to bring to this long-forgotten piece of history. The disease first appeared and spread through Chinatown, where people's lives were little valued and indeed, the community of immigrants was the target of prejudice and scorn. Mr. Randall puts names and ages to each of the victims, and in most cases, uncovers their addresses, where they worked, and even what particular day an employee failed to show up for work. Prejudice itself is partly to blame for the lives the plague took, as Chinese people hid their sick and dead from the eyes of authorities who were all too eager to barricade them in their teeming, overcrowded quarters in order to prevent the disease from reaching the higher-regarded white population. Needless to say, the plague knew no racial barriers and it soon spread to people of other ethnicities. This is a highly readable popular history that tells the story through the main characters in the drama -- the research scientists and medical personnel tasked with identifying and eradicating the disease, the government functionaries intent on protecting their positions and reputations, the politicians bent on swatting away anyone who would malign their kingdoms, and the individuals who succumbed to the relentless and horrifying disease. From our perch here in the twenty-first century, readers might be breathing a sigh of relief, secure in the thought that we've beat this killer disease. But in the closing chapter of the book, Mr. Randall shakes our confidence. About seven people a year die from bubonic plague in the United States, he says. The disease traveled on fleas first from rats in the city to squirrels in the countryside, and it's slowly making its way east on its rodent hosts. It's jumped its residence in California and has appeared in Arizona and New Mexico. Where will it turn up next and will it become immune to our over-prescribed antibiotics? Mr. Randall suggests that there might be another chapter in the tale of the bubonic plague.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Younkin

    The fight to stop bubonic plague from becoming an epidemic in the United States in the 1900s has been a largely unknown but true story. David Randall’s book reads like a thriller, the plot full of obstructive politicians, courageous scientists and previously unsung people trying to eke out an existence in the then wild west town of San Francisco. At the time bacteriology was in its infancy and its scientists were regarded as cold and unfeeling, removed from human misery. One of these scien The fight to stop bubonic plague from becoming an epidemic in the United States in the 1900s has been a largely unknown but true story. David Randall’s book reads like a thriller, the plot full of obstructive politicians, courageous scientists and previously unsung people trying to eke out an existence in the then wild west town of San Francisco. At the time bacteriology was in its infancy and its scientists were regarded as cold and unfeeling, removed from human misery. One of these scientists, Joseph Kinyoun, had been sent by his boss, Walter Wyman, Surgeon General of the Marine Hospital Division to San Francisco because of professional jealousy. Wyman just wanted Kinyoun out of the way because of his superior laboratory skills. Kinyoun’s new job was on Angel Island, an island in San Francisco Bay and a rundown outpost, lacking functional equipment and well as adequate living conditions. His job was to inspect the ships and sailors coming into the important port for signs of disease. Alerted by plague reports in China and a plague outbreak in Honolulu, Kinyoun understood the necessity of unprecedented vigilance in making sure the disease did not reach the United States. In spite of this, he was to make a mistake alienating all the local health officials from which he never recovered. When plague was suspected in a Chinese man, all of San Francisco’s Chinatown was quarantined and chaos ensued. Health officials lifted the quarantine after 48 hours and before Kinyoun’s results from a test where he inoculated laboratory animals with diseased tissue samples came back. With the quarantine lifted, people rushed out. The general belief was that the plague was an Asian disease. Those with European ancestry should not be concerned. Mayor James Phelan announced that there was no indication of infection from the animals injected. He spoke too soon. All the laboratory animals Kinyoun inoculated died of the plague. Kinyoun knew the disease existed now in San Francisco and had trouble convincing anyone. Eight more confirmed cases occurred. Finally, he persuaded Walter Wyman to send 20,000 doses of an experimental vaccine which was shown to reduce the risk of the disease by half. Ultimately, Wyman was to replace Kinyoun with Rupert Blue. Blue was an unassuming man in the shadow of a war hero brother. He was constantly dismissed as not being particularly impressive and lacking leadership qualities. Blue was to change the course of the fight against the disease. This is one of those stories that is almost too unbelievable to be true. Randall documents the racism, the arrogance and the ignorance of local and state leaders in charge of preserving San Francisco’s reputation and economic success. This is a tremendous read and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Fans of Eric Larsen will particularly enjoy this book as well as history buffs and those interested in infectious diseases.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kend

    Did you know that the plague is here, in the United States, right now? I didn't know that until I was having coffee with a friend's family and her father mentioned the fact that all of the prairie dogs in their part of central Montana had died of plague—and I quote—"again." He then went on to explain that this is a cyclical occurrence throughout the region, as populations rebound from being wiped out, only for the plague to be re-introduced and those bumper populations to crash ("again"). For a Did you know that the plague is here, in the United States, right now? I didn't know that until I was having coffee with a friend's family and her father mentioned the fact that all of the prairie dogs in their part of central Montana had died of plague—and I quote—"again." He then went on to explain that this is a cyclical occurrence throughout the region, as populations rebound from being wiped out, only for the plague to be re-introduced and those bumper populations to crash ("again"). For a long time I wasn't sure that the plague he spoke of was THE plague, as in the Black Death which wiped out upward of 40% of Europe's population in the Middle Ages ... but spoiler alert, he was. So why isn't the plague as deadly here in the United States as it was in Europe (and throughout other huge swathes of the globe)? I won't spoil the entire book for you, but it comes down to a species of flea, as well as the way populations are distributed in the western United States. You can find out a lot more about the current state of plague distribution, treatment, and so on, by visiting the CDC website dedicated to plague. Truthfully, Randall is less interested in the present state of things than he is in the history of how it came to this country, and what measures were taken to prevent its effects from reaching devastating levels. This is certainly worth reading in conversation with other plague-related works out there, of which there are remarkably few, given its history-shaping power. Or rather I should say that there are very few readable nonfiction books for general audiences, as the plague has been frequently written about in the context of medical research and Medieval history. The tone of this book is rather dry. But the story itself is super compelling, and I found that Randall focused on the kinds of pivotal historical figures in whom I am most interested. So despite the delivery, I found myself tearing through this book, and respecting Randall's research ethic as I did so. The end notes and references at the end of this book more than confirm Randall's authority to write about the Black Death in America, and that's a refreshing departure from some of the other nonfiction works I've read this year. I have already passed this book on to a couple of friends, as it's the sort of book which blew my mind and changed my perception of certain aspects of daily life in modern America.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Cropredy

    Short version: This was really interesting about something that took place 100+ years ago in San Francisco, the metropolis that dominates where I have lived for 30+ years. Anyone who has a connection to SF should read this to learn about something that is little-known but was potentially devastating. Long version: Before the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city with the first cases occurring in Chinatown. There had been recent prior epidemics in Bombay (now Mu Short version: This was really interesting about something that took place 100+ years ago in San Francisco, the metropolis that dominates where I have lived for 30+ years. Anyone who has a connection to SF should read this to learn about something that is little-known but was potentially devastating. Long version: Before the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city with the first cases occurring in Chinatown. There had been recent prior epidemics in Bombay (now Mumbai), Hong Kong, and Honolulu. The United States Public Health System was in its infancy and bacteriology was also a recent discovery/invention. Attitudes to the plague were initially racist - that is, only the "filth" that the Chinese were living in would be the cause. "White people" couldn't get the plague. The opening chapter takes place in Honolulu where let's just say, "severe measures" were taken by the authorities. Given the Honolulu experience and the attitudes of the San Francisco and California power structure, it was no wonder the Chinatown inhabitants tried to conceal each victim from the authorities. Plague would be bad for business so it was simply denied. So, without revealing anything about what happens, you'll learn about the plague's spread, how it was countered, and how it resurged after the 1906 quake. The clashes between health officials and politicians/business leaders read like they could be happening today in 2019. Ultimately, we can thank scientists who discovered the link between plague-inflicted fleas and the rats they enjoyed feeding from. Had there not been science, there's no telling how severe the outbreak of plague could have been to the United States. There are some delightful tidbits about M.H. de Young (with eponymous museum in Golden Gate Park), who was the publisher of the SF Chronicle and his role in the plague. Former California governors hardly cover themselves with honor or courage. And lastly, don't touch or eat squirrels.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Robin

    In the early 20th century, bubonic plague nearly swept across the country. There were two separate outbreaks - the first from 1900 to 1904, and the second in 1907. The epidemic began in Chinatown in San Francisco in 1900. Bacteriologist Dr. Joseph Kinyoun of the Marine Hospital Service (which would later become the National Public Health Service), was dispatched by Surgeon General Walter Wyman to investigate and stop the epidemic. He was not successful, mainly because the politicians refused to In the early 20th century, bubonic plague nearly swept across the country. There were two separate outbreaks - the first from 1900 to 1904, and the second in 1907. The epidemic began in Chinatown in San Francisco in 1900. Bacteriologist Dr. Joseph Kinyoun of the Marine Hospital Service (which would later become the National Public Health Service), was dispatched by Surgeon General Walter Wyman to investigate and stop the epidemic. He was not successful, mainly because the politicians refused to acknowledge that the plague existed in California, and blocked him at every turn. Kinyoun was recalled, and Dr. Rupert Blue took his place. Dr. Blue was much more successful in dealing with the politicians. He was able to secure funding for a rat eradication program in the city, and oversaw the modernization of sanitation measures and of construction methods. Rats were killed by the hundreds of thousands, public sewers were built, garbage collection was increased, and dirt floors were replaced with concrete, all in an effort to destroy the rats and their habitat, so they could not spread plague. By 1904, the city was plague free. Blue was reassigned. Funding for rat eradication ceased, and their population rebounded. In 1906, after the earthquake and the devastating fires which followed it, the rats migrated to other areas of the city and countryside. Plague resurfaced in 1907. Dr. Blue returned, and once again saved San Francisco and the country from a major epidemic. The last widespread occurrence of bubonic plague in this country occurred in Los Angeles in 1924. Despite Dr. Blue's efforts, bubonic plague became entrenched in the western rodent population. Today, prairie dogs are known carriers, but mice, rats, squirrels, and even dogs and cats can be carriers of plague-infected fleas. Five to 17 cases of plague occur in the U.S. every year. This was a really interesting book. I didn't know anything about this epidemic, and the author did a really good job of explaining what happened. It reads more like a thriller than a nonfiction book. I recommend it!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    **I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book through NetGalley from the publisher in exchange for an honest review** At the turn of the twentieth century, San Francisco faced a crisis – the bubonic plague caused the death of citizens in Chinatown. What began as an identity of the disease led to cover-ups; rampant racism; political alliances; egocentric officials who cared more about their career than the masses; and finally, the emergence of one man who helped a city on the ver **I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book through NetGalley from the publisher in exchange for an honest review** At the turn of the twentieth century, San Francisco faced a crisis – the bubonic plague caused the death of citizens in Chinatown. What began as an identity of the disease led to cover-ups; rampant racism; political alliances; egocentric officials who cared more about their career than the masses; and finally, the emergence of one man who helped a city on the verge of an epidemic become plague-free. In this quick read, Randall lays down the facts, discusses the obstacles faced in bringing the disease to light, including massive cover-ups by the governor and by the press – and how practices in San Francisco influenced later outbreaks. It’s spellbinding and a story not told in US history texts. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 also laid bare further struggles with the disease. I could not stop reading this. Randall’s writing style keeps readers hooked from the first outbreak to the last. Randall delves into the history of San Francisco and its founding, outlining reasons behind some of the decisions made during the potential epidemic. The plight of the Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants in San Francisco during this time are also discussed, bringing to light another aspect to the potential epidemic and the erroneous thoughts about its spread. I enjoyed learning more about Rupert Blue, whose dogged determination to eradicate the disease left him an oftentimes unsung hero to the crusade. This is a story that needs told, another chapter of American history neglected. Randall does an amazing job bringing this to light. Highly recommended.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kerry Bossons

    I was drawn to this book like an infected flea to a warm rat. I had no idea that there had been a bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco and this account really met my expectations. The account has a readable style, features well drawn characters (aka real people), reads like fiction and demonstrates thorough research. I was left wanting to investigate my own hometown for outbreaks (thankfully clean since 1665). The story arc followed the zombie novel pattern of setting the scene, u I was drawn to this book like an infected flea to a warm rat. I had no idea that there had been a bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco and this account really met my expectations. The account has a readable style, features well drawn characters (aka real people), reads like fiction and demonstrates thorough research. I was left wanting to investigate my own hometown for outbreaks (thankfully clean since 1665). The story arc followed the zombie novel pattern of setting the scene, unleashing the plague, racism and ineptitude leading to more plague and a handsome doctor arriving to sort everything out, finishing with success tempered by the potential of future outbreaks. I was thoroughly invested in the outcome and cheered the transformation of San Francisco from grubby frontier town to beacon of urban sanitation. The achievement of the author is in putting a human face to the people who made it all possible. My favourite part of the whole book is a celebration dinner given for Dr Blue and his team, complete with garbage pail shaped glasses! This book perfect for anyone who enjoys hidden histories and contagious diseases. Perfect for fans of This Podcast Will Kill You (who have covered bubonic plague if you need more of the science behind it).. I will definitely seek out other books by the same author. I'm now going to wash my hands and remember to never feed squirrels.

  30. 4 out of 5

    ⋟Kimari⋞

    You might also enjoy: ✱ The Ghost Map ✱ Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus ✱ Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of ✱ Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic ✱ The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death ✱ Rats, Lice and History ✱ Pandemic 1918 ✱ The Great Influenza ✱ Microbe Hunters ✱ The Medical Detectives

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