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The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco

3.77  ·  Rating Details ·  677 Ratings  ·  85 Reviews
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 o ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published March 9th 2004 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published 2003)
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Community Reviews

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Chloe Lessard
Jan 10, 2016 Chloe Lessard rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: public health fans, students, history buffs
The spread of disease is part virulence, part human imperfection and ignorance, as conveyed elegantly by Chase's text. The book carries the story like a journal scrawled by an observing physician, with thick detail, atmosphere, and technical comprehension of the public health issue at hand. The serious nature of the body clashes somewhat with a few occurrences of inflated and flourished language in an attempt to add color to a potentially dry subject, but Chase does an excellent job of turning ...more
Lee Anne
Aug 18, 2008 Lee Anne rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The premise is interesting: bubonic plague strikes turn of the century San Francisco, Chinese immigrants are unfairly blamed and persecuted. If it was an article in Vanity Fair, or the New York Times Sunday Magazine, I would read it, the whole thing (even to the the continued page at the back, where some really long VF articles lose me). But when I started this late Saturday night, I found it to be so horribly over-written that I just didn't care enough to keep going.

Example: "Cable cars scaled
Aug 28, 2014 Carrie rated it it was amazing
Shelves: kindle
I am a huge fan of books about fighting disease, so this was a great book. Plus, it is more than a micro-history of plague at the turn of the century in San Francisco. It also includes a brief history of the evolution of our understanding of the plague (and some huge discoveries about the disease occurred in the ~8 years that this book covers), a history of San Francisco, a history of Chinese immigration into the area (and the resulting xenophobia), a history of public health and how it evolved, ...more
Juliet Doubledee
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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 wer
Aug 12, 2013 ☕Laura rated it really liked it
This was a very interesting account of an episode in US history that I had never heard about -- the bubonic plague epidemic in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. It may have been only through a quirk of flea anatomy and the hard work of some very dedicated public health officers that we were able to avert the large-scale epidemics that have ravaged so many other nations. While the fight against the plague would seem to be a cause everyone should have rallied behind, it was complicated by racism, ...more
Jul 07, 2008 Steve rated it liked it
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 ...more
Oct 19, 2012 Canice rated it it was amazing
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.
Nov 06, 2016 Cheyenne rated it it was ok
Had to read this for class. Not a big fan of forced reading, but I'll tolerate it if the book is interesting. This is not one of those times. Only people dying from the plague and some government conflicts kept me going, but there was barely enough of that to keep me interested. There's a lot of imagery, alright, but there was a point in the book (like the third chapter for me) that I got sick of it because it seemed like Chase was pulling it out of nothing. Whatever. I didn't even retain enough ...more
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 tim
Louise Carlson Stowell
This was a part of San Francisco history that I had not known about, despite coming from a long line of San Franciscans.

I think that the Drs. Joseph Kinyoun and Rupert Blue along with their team need to have a brass plaque or some sort of commemoration to the work they did to save the City and try to prevent the spread of plague into the Western states (where, by the way it lingers still). 401 Fillmore is where "the Rattery" and the laboratory stood where Rupert Blue fought his war on the plagu
Jan 22, 2015 Crystal rated it it was amazing
I picked this book up second-hand because I love reading about San Francisco. Little did I know what a treat I had discovered! Did you know the plague is endemic to the US? No - neither did I. Chase illuminates a terrifically interesting period in the history San Francisco, roughly 1900-1910. At this time, the fledgling CDC was called in to arrest the spread of bubonic plague which had arrived via ships from Honolulu. Bacteriology was a very new science at the turn of the century and chase does ...more
I find that certain rather obscure topics will suddenly be everywhere around me. Early 1900s San Francisco has been stalking me of late in everything from history programs on the 1906 earthquake to podcasts about the architecture style of Chinatown…which was rebuilt after the earthquake. In case you are a big earthquake fan, let me reassure you – it’s in here too! It’s hard to pin this book down into a narrow category. Yes, it’s about bubonic plague, but it’s also about casual racism and Chinese ...more
Sabrina Flynn
Sep 09, 2016 Sabrina Flynn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sheds light on forgotten history

The bubonic plague in San Francisco? Chinatown burnt to the ground in Hawaii? And a fence of barbed wire put around the Chinatown in San Francisco?

I've lived my whole life in the SF Bay Area and never even heard about those events. Common history highlights 1849 and 1906 as the only interesting thing to happen in San Francisco. But there is much more. And Jan 1900 is one of those dates. When the SS Australia brought the plague to SF. Due to greedy politicians tryi
Jan 03, 2015 Galicius rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Indeed the electric cars hardly “jingle” as can be well experienced by the clangor that you’ll year if you visit the cable car museum on the corner of 1201 Mason and Washington Streets. These sentences are probably the height of the author’s “over-writing” but the writing gets much better. There is a great deal of research and it’s interesting to see so much history. However the historical background of the people on the scene is of American white only. It would be interesting to see a little ...more
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
May 21, 2012 itpdx rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Brian Palmer
Sep 19, 2014 Brian Palmer rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
A surprisingly enjoyable book about a tragic -- and, at times, infuriating -- subject. Shortly before and during the Great Earthquake of 1906, the Bubonic Plague was unleashed on San Francisco, killing hundreds and requiring a huge investment in public health measures. This book tackles the initial reports, when its prevalence in Chinatown (with a huge rat population) brought up ancillary issues that needed considered, such as cultural background (autopsies were anathema to the Chinese), racism ...more
Sharon Todd
Aug 27, 2012 Sharon Todd rated it really liked it
I'd just finished Daughter of Fortune and was telling my step daughter about it. She is into books about health and the causes of the lack thereof, and said I might enjoy this as a follow up.

It is sort of a detective/political/cultural mix of a book, because it took detective-like work to figure out the cause of the plague (rats) and where the rats were coming from, then why it was that rats created the plague. Political, because the powers that were in place found it easier to deny their was a
Feb 04, 2011 Alvin rated it really liked it
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 that
some businessmen opposed or mocked efforts to control the fast-spreading pla
Sep 17, 2009 Valerie rated it it was ok
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 ...more
David Schwan
Jun 24, 2010 David Schwan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: my-favorites
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.
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
Monica Bryant
May 07, 2015 Monica Bryant rated it it was amazing
My book group chose this and I wasn't enthusiastic. But I found it a great read. I enjoyed the Victorian language and feel of the time. Somehow it gives me hope for our time when you read about the graft and corruption and racism at that time and that people still managed to achieve such an amazing thing. The citizens and the politicians were finally convinced that they had to work together to get rid of the rats and clean up, to end the plague. And they did it! The individual characters like ...more
Sep 02, 2008 Jennifer rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Jane
Recommended to Jennifer by: The Book Cellar, Lincoln Square Chicago
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.
The Bookloft
Bookseller: Linda

In the new year of 1900, a ship from Hong Kong docked in San Francisco. No one was aware that some infected, adventurous rats escaped into the city. Just say the word PLAGUE and one shudders - bulbos of pus, blackened skin - and death... But that's just part of this story that Chase researched. Social class, public health, politics, personalities & bureaucracy all play major roles in handling the plague. This is a very readable & mind-opening story of how people cope und
Kathleen McRae
Jul 22, 2015 Kathleen McRae rated it really liked it
Well researched swell documented this book was interesting for many reasons. It had a detailed account of san Francisci during the years the medical establishment tried to find out how it spread and it also tell the story of the discrimination practised against the many chinese residents who resided in China town . They were singled out as the dirty cause of the the illness and not until it was found to be caused by fleas using the rats in the vermin infested city >t caused much hardship as ...more
Jul 06, 2007 Bill rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: San Franciscans
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 ch
Jul 27, 2016 Lisa rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent piece of written history.
Chase examines the bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco starting in 1900 and how politics, public health and racism factored into its prevention and eventual finish. Because the outbreak began in Chinatown, anti-Chinese sentiment played a large role in the public health efforts.
This is a great piece of micro-history, suitable to anyone interested in medical, racial and immigration history. Chase is a compelling storyteller.

Amanda Varella
Jun 06, 2015 Amanda Varella rated it did not like it
I love books about historical medicine, but that one... well... It's only a historical book. The history goes around the life of the sanitarian Rupert Blue, so it think it could be better told. The epilogue is interesting, I didn't know that the bubonic plague still exists, and in Brazil that are cases every year. Anyway, interesting to know some historical facts, but I think it's not worth the time spent with this book.
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