Plague in Victorian San Francisco–lessons for public health communication

I have a post up today at the Scientific American Guest blog, discussing how an earthquake and denial led to prairie dog plague. It details an outbreak of plague in Victorian San Francisco–the first time plague hit the United States–and the many downstream consequences of that outbreak (which began in 1900 and wasn’t really contained until 1908). While the story is over at SciAm, here I wanted to talk more about why the outbreak became such a public health disaster.

The outbreak was first recognized by Dr. Joseph Kinyoun, a bacteriologist who had been, until his transfer to San Francisco, heading up the United States Hygienic Lab, the precursor to the National Institutes of Health. Charged with inspecting incoming ships, Kinyoun had the power to quarantine ships and their crew in harbor, in an effort to keep plague out (which was already circulating in port cities of Honolulu, Sydney, and Tokyo, amongst others). When Kinyoun first suspected a case of plague, San Francisco merchants quickly banded together to deny any such pestilence in their city. What followed was a mess of ineffective quarantines, fights over scientific data, accusations of “spiking” corpses with plague samples Kinyoun had brought with him from Washington, D.C., and an eventual call for Kinyoun’s execution.

History shows that Kinyoun was right–San Francisco had plague cases, and the plague would continue to smolder for almost a decade. As I note in the post, it still lingers today in squirrels and rodents from the Pacific Ocean inland to the Great Plains. So what went wrong, if Kinyoun clearly had the facts on his side?

Like many scientific issues today, it wasn’t the facts that ended Kinyoun’s career in San Francisco, but his messaging. Admittedly, he was acting without all the knowledge of plague transmission that we have today–it wasn’t confirmed in 1900 that rat fleas were the main vector of the disease from rodents to person, and so Kinyoun couldn’t have been sure his attempts to quarantine Chinatown would be ineffective. Furthermore, in some cases, he was merely obeying orders from his superiors. His boss, Surgeon General Walter Wyman, had recently published a monograph on plague, endorsing the idea that plague selectively targeted Asians due to their particular diets and their poverty.

Still, the way Kinyoun went about attacking those most affected in the initial outbreak–the Chinese immigrants–only served to terrify them and drive plague cases underground. Indeed, when public health officers went door-to-door searching for plague cases, one anecdote notes that a game of dominoes was set up in a home, and all the men stayed perfectly still with dominoes in their hands while officers searched the home for anyone with plague symptoms. Little did they know that a plague corpse was sitting at the card table, “Weekend at Bernie’s” style (1). Other Chinese fled Chinatown, bunking with friends and relatives elsewhere when possible. Threats were made to burn Chinatown (as had recently happened in Honolulu); Kinyoun tried to bar travel by any “Asiatics” on trains or boats leaving the city, clearly a race-based order. Furthermore, even when cases of plague were identified in Chinatown, the very practice of carrying out autopsies was offensive to the Chinese, giving them even more reason to hide their sick and dead rather than cooperate with Kinyoun and other public health authorities.

Kinyoun left the city in 1901, and eventually Rupert Blue was brought in to control the outbreak. Taking lessons from those who’d been there prior (and were unsuccessful), Blue took a much more diplomatic tack. He secured the assistance of a Chinese translator, Wong Chung, and worked within the Chinese community to gain their support. He often downplayed the outbreak–never suggesting it wasn’t happening or wasn’t important, but trying to differentiate hype from supported fact. He worked to clean up Chinatown, both in its housing and in rat infestations, rather than to quarantine infected areas. He noted that plague could occur in many different races, and avoided scapegoating one particular ethnic class. He also reached out to businessmen to educate them, and show how important cleaning up the city was for their bottom lines. He worked with the facts as Kinyoun did, but he recognized the importance of grassroots support in his campaign, and targeted reasons why various factions should support his various anti-plague measures.

In the end, while Kinyoun was practically run out of town on a rail, Blue was given banquets and numerous accolades. He served as the Surgeon General from 1912-1920, and his methods for cleaning up the city led to a decrease not only in plague, but in many infectious diseases. While Kinyoun’s science was sound, Blue managed to break down barriers and work with those who could help him spread his message, and take ownership of the work that needed to be done. He framed* the threat in terms that meant something to the populations he was working with: businessmen and threat to their incomes; immigrants’ threat to health, with promises to respect their culture and help them make their homes cleaner places to live; city and state government, noting the threat to the very reputation of California and San Francisco in the US and around the world. His tactics served him well in 1902-08, and should serve as a reminder to science communicators today as well.

(*I know that term is somewhat tainted in some circles, but bear with me…)

Further reading and references

Chase, “The Barbary Plague”.

Echenberg, “Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901.”