'Plague and Fire' a tale of public health, imperialism, race relations, catastrophe

11/18/04

UO historian chronicles the tragic burning of Honolulu’s Chinatown during the 1900 plague

EUGENE, Ore.--A new book by University of Oregon historian James Mohr is the first in-depth account of the epic story behind the burning of Honolulu's Chinatown during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1900.

"Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Honolulu's Chinatown" (Oxford University Press, 2004) represents the culmination of a project that was sparked about 20 years ago when Mohr spotted a simple sign while walking in Honolulu's modern Chinatown.

"The sign said that the original buildings in the area had all been burned "on order of the Board of Health," Mohr recalled, "and I wondered how such a thing could have happened."

As the story opens, the United States had just annexed the Hawaiian Islands but had not yet established a territorial government there. An epidemic of the legendary Black Death, which had killed millions of people in China and India during the late 1890s, arrived in Honolulu in December 1899. The interim white minority government quickly ceded absolute emergency powers to the local Board of Health, hoping to save the islands from decimation.

"I've always been interested in situations where doctors are prominently involved in the making of public policy," said Mohr, who is an authority on medical jurisprudence. "Here was a case in which three physicians were essentially the absolute dictators of America's newest territorial possession. And the fact that the U.S. didn't know quite what to do with its new possession was one of the complicating factors in the medical politics of the whole thing."

As the crisis unfolded, the public health community debated the virtues of bacteriology. But the vector of the epidemic--fleas--had not yet been demonstrated, and no one knew much about the behavior of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that causes bubonic plague.

"As a result," Mohr explained, "the physicians on the Board of Health could identify the enemy bacteria but they weren't sure how best to kill them. That's why the physicians resorted to the use of fire for site burning where plague victims had died--fire was the only thing that they knew for certain would destroy any lingering bacteria. One of those spot fires became an inferno and in a matter of hours destroyed about a fifth of the city."

Amazingly enough, no lives were lost in the fire itself. But some 6,000 refugees who fled the blaze were incarcerated in quarantine camps and held under armed guard because authorities feared their exposure to plague might spread the disease throughout the city.

"James Mohr gives a riveting account of why, how and with what consequences physician leaders in Hawaii a century ago assumed emergency health powers," said Daniel M. Fox, president of the Milbank Memorial Fund, an endowed national foundation that supports nonpartisan analysis, study and research on significant issues in health policy.

"Mohr's themes have contemporary resonance, especially his analysis of the effects of scientific uncertainty on policy, competing perceptions of private interests and the common good, and the potential for public health interventions to become vectors for disaster," Fox commented.

Released this month (November), the book is based on sources in four languages (Chinese, English, Hawaiian and Japanese), and is 235 pages with 25 period photographs and two maps.

Mohr, who came to the University of Oregon in 1992, is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History. He specializes in 19th-century social and medical policy, and currently teaches courses on American identity, 19th-century U.S. history, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Mohr has been a Guggenheim, Rockefeller-Ford, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and Norman Brown fellow, as well as winner of the Throne-Aldrich Prize.

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