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When the Plague Took Aim at San Francisco

We can learn from past pandemics—if only we would heed them

April 23, 2021

In his recent lecture, Bob Perrins made numerous comparisons between the bubonic plague that hit San Francisco in the early 1900s and the COVID-19 pandemic that we've experienced since early 2020.
In his recent lecture, Bob Perrins made numerous comparisons between the bubonic plague that hit San Francisco in the early 1900s and the COVID-19 pandemic that we've experienced since early 2020.

Politicians and business leaders downplayed the health threat. Some media outlets lampooned public health officials. And, sadly, some people blamed the disease on immigrants, including Chinese Americans.  

It sounds like those statements refer to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., right? But they actually describe San Francisco at the dawn of the 20th century, as the city contended with an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Bob Perrins, provost and academic vice president at Mount Saint Mary’s, will discuss this all-too-familiar scene on April 29 in a lecture, “Reflecting on a Past Pandemic: The Bubonic Plague in California, 1900-1904.” 

Provost and academic vice president Bob Perrins will give a presentation covering an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco at the start of the 20th century.
Provost and academic vice president Bob Perrins will give a presentation covering an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco at the start of the 20th century.

A historian who specializes in disease, epidemics and medicine in modern East Asia, Perrins covers the San Francisco-area outbreak of the plague in his course on the history of medicine. His students read “The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco” by Marilyn Chase and draw on 3,000 pages of digitized records that Perrins has collected from the U.S. National Archives.

When COVID-19 forced his class online in the spring of 2020, Perrins asked students to document the impact of the new disease on their lives. “I said, ‘You’re living through this historic event, just as 100 years ago people worldwide lived through a historic event during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic.’”

The response was amazing, according to Perrins. Some students took pictures of grocery store shelves stripped of toilet paper and cleaning products. Others wrote about friends and family members who got sick or lost jobs. Some tracked announcements issued by the City of Los Angeles and the State of California.

Like COVID in the U.S., the bubonic plague in San Francisco was part of a worldwide pandemic. It also struck southern China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, and even Hawaii and Scotland, carried on ships by flea-infested rats. But unlike COVID or the massive outbreak of bubonic plague in the 14th century often referred to as the Black Death, San Francisco’s outbreak of plague didn’t trigger widespread disaster: the city saw just 121 confirmed cases and 119 deaths. Those cases were confined mainly to the area near the harbor, where rats from the ships tended to linger.

While California’s governor, Henry Gage, long denied that the plague was even present in the state, Dr. Joseph Kinyoun, chief quarantine officer of the U.S. Marine Hospital Service in San Francisco, tried to stop the spread by shutting the port and enforcing a quarantine. “There was a huge pushback against him,” Perrins says.

The U.S. government eventually replaced Kinyoun with Dr. Rupert Blue, a public health official who was better able to work within the local political environment. “Under Blue, they set up a rat-catching brigade and tested rats all over the city,” Perrins says. Workers also cleaned the sewers and other rat hangouts. “Ultimately, that’s how they ended up ridding the city of plague.”

Some of Perrins’ students were delighted to find an article about Blue, published in the U.S. Journal of Public Health in the 1990s, and recognize the name of the author — Dr. Anthony Fauci. “Yes, this is the same guy you keep seeing on TV every night,” Perrins assured them.

This spring, Perrins has asked students to compare our experience with COVID to the influenza pandemic of 1918 – 1919. That crisis drew a spectrum of responses. “Some cities, where they didn’t enact social distancing or wearing of masks, saw a huge number of deaths,” he says. “Other cities, where they had much stricter rules, survived much better.”

Unfortunately, Perrins laments, people often ignore the lessons of history.

 

Watch the presentation (scroll down to midpage to find it under the Virtual Event Series heading.