Quarantine & Eradication: Bubonic Plague in San Francisco

From now through September 15, the San Francisco History Center is hosting an exhibition documenting the bubonic plague in San Francisco. The exhibit, Quarantine & Eradication: Plague in San Francisco, highlights how San Francisco reacted and responded to the bubonic plague outbreaks in 1900 and in 1907.

At the exhibit, one will see a variety of documents, photographs, scrapbooks, and other physical items from the San Francisco History Center’s collections. The sources provide fascinating accounts of the hysteria and racial discrimination surrounding the first plague outbreak in 1900 in Chinatown juxtaposed with the eradication campaign with the second plague outbreak in 1907.

This blog post will focus on the first outbreak in Chinatown. There will be a second post that focuses on the second outbreak in 1907. When the first bubonic plague case was found in San Francisco, there were mixed reactions - including denial and calling it the "fake plague."

Definition of bubonic plague:

Bubonic plague is a disease caused by the bacillus Yersinia pestis. It is characterized by painfully swollen lymph nodes or "buboes." In some cases, the bacilli enter the bloodstream, resulting in a condition known as "septicemic plague." A third form, "pneumonic plague," affects the lungs. All three types may produce internal bleeding and the formation of large bruises on the skin, hence another name for the plague, "the black death." All three forms are usually fatal if not properly treated. Septicemic plague usually results in death within 24 hours, while the other two types generally kill those afflicted in 3 to 4 days after infection. The bacillus is carried by fleas that live off the blood of many kinds of rodents. Contagion with bacillus appears to have been a permanent feature of rodent colonies in the Himalayan borderlands between India and China. Similar colonies were also found in central Africa. In these places local people seem to have learned to avoid contact with rodents; consequently, plague did not reach epidemic proportions. This situation began to change in the 13th century, when much of Central Asia was conquered by the Mongols, who then extended their domain westward towards Europe and southward into China. The military and economic expansion of the Mongol Empire was accompanied by the movement of the rat population into new areas. At about this time, the intensification of commercial navigation also opened up new routes for the movement of infected rats into Europe and the Middle East.

In 1894, Yersinia pestis was identified as the cause of plague, and in the 1920s researchers in Manchuria discovered the role of rodents in harboring it. In the 1930s, the recently discovered sulfa drugs finally offered something close to a cure for plague, and from the 1940s onwards, antibiotics provided a complete cure. Even so, the disease has not been eradicated; minor outbreaks of plague still occur in many parts of the world, including the western United States.

Volti, Rudi. “Bubonic Plague.” Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Society, Vol. 1, Facts On File, 1999. Science Online.

1013 Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue), circa 1903.
J. D. Williamson Photograph Album

With corrupt politics at play, here is a timeline of events with the quarantine of San Francisco's Chinatown district and eventual elimination of the bubonic plague from the neighborhood.

Timeline on Bubonic Plague in Chinatown, San Francisco:
Report of the Special Health Commissioners Appointed by the Governor
to Confer with the Federal Authorities at Washington Respecting the
Alleged Existence of Bubonic Plague in California: Also
Report of State Board of Health, 1901

Mar 6, 1900   
Chinese male (Wing Chut Kang) dies in basement of Globe Hotel, 1001 DuPont Street (Grant San Francisco Examiner reports.
Avenue) with signs of plague. Physicians meet and concur that disease has broken out in San Francisco,

Mar 7, 1900   
  • San Francisco Board of Health orders immediate quarantine of 12 blocks of Chinatown.
  • San Francisco Police Department removes whites from Chinatown.
  • Chinatown is cordoned off by 12 noon.
  • Politicians accuse Board of Health of overreaction for fear of commercial consequences.
Mar 9, 1900
  • Board of Health lifts quarantine due to protests.
  • Board of Health conducts house-to-house inspection and fumigation of Chinatown.
Mar 22, 1900
  • Dr. John Williamson, President of the Board of Health, reports confirmation of plague’s existence.
  • Local newspapers suppress information.
  • Board of Health continues to inspect Chinatown for next 6 weeks.
  • Approximately 50 cases break out and 92% of the cases die.
SF Call, June 15, 1900
May 12, 1900
  • President McKinley orders Surgeon General to limit travel of “Orientals” on streetcars, trains or ships.
  • Chinese file suit claiming President exceeded his authority.
  • San Francisco Board of Supervisors vote to cordon off Chinatown. 
Mid-May, 1900
Chinese Benevolent Society meets with health authorities and agrees to cooperate.

May 22, 1900
  • Board of Health attempts to clean up Chinatown by transferring residents to Angel Island and tearing down Chinese area.
  • Judge Morrow rules the cordon around Chinatown is illegal and orders Dr. Kinyoun to trial for forbidding Chinese freedom of movement.
  • California Governor Henry Gage investigates plague with his supporters including big business (railroads), San Francisco Board of Trade, Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco Merchants Association. The conclusion is there is no plague.
  • Governor forces State Board of Health to change official position and fires members who said there was plague.
  • Texas and Colorado declare quarantine on California.
Oct 1900
  • Nineteen more bubonic plague cases are documented. 
  • Mexico, Ecuador, Australia impose quarantine on California.
  • California State Board of Health continue to deny existence of plague.

Destruction of Chinatown buildings, circa 1903.
J. D. Williamson Photograph Album
Governor Gage condemns city officials of a “plague scare.”

Jan-Apr 1901
Commission is appointed and verifying existence of plague.

Dec 1902
By end of year, 100 bubonic plague cases reported.

Feb 1903
  • New governor George Pardee, M.D. wants to comply with federal government’s regulations.
  • Dr. Rupert Blue leads new campaign to cleanse Chinatown.
Mar 14, 1903
Dr. Blue claims danger of outbreak is past.

Plague outbreak ends with 121 known infections, 118 died.

Digital resources for research on San Francisco's bubonic plague history in Chinatown:
  • Use your San Francisco Public Library card to search full-text articles in the San Francisco Chronicle Historical database, 1865 - current. The California Digital Newspaper Collection includes the San Francisco Call (free, open access). 
  • Read accounts straight from the source  - the Department of Public Health - including the Report of the Bacteriologist documenting the plague cases reported (and noted in timeline above).
  • Take a peek at what Chinatown looked like in 1900 from the digitized glass plate negatives shot by D. H. Wulzen

We invite you to visit the exhibit and the San Francisco History Center to learn more about this unforgettable event in San Francisco’s history.

Quarantine & Eradication: Plague in San Francisco runs from July 7 - September 15 at the Main Library, Skylight Gallery on the 6th floor.

This exhibition is occurring in conjunction with the Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic project. This interdisciplinary research project led by social anthropologist, Dr. Christos Lynteris, based at University of Cambridge's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences & Humanities (CRASSH), is funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no 336564).