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

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

Contact: Melody Ward Leslie
University of Oregon

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