Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Franciscos Chinatown

Plague Fear and Politics in San Francisco's Chinatown
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Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco's Chinatown

Lasting until , the plague in San Francisco's Chinatown reignited racial prejudices, renewed efforts to remove the Chinese from their district, and created new tensions among local, state, and federal public health officials quarreling over the presence of the deadly disease. Risse's rich, nuanced narrative of the event draws from a variety of sources, including Chinese-language reports and accounts. He addresses the ecology of Chinatown, the approaches taken by Chinese and Western medical practitioners, and the effects of quarantine plans on Chinatown and its residents.

A physician and historian, Guenter B. Risse is professor emeritus of the history of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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Add to Wishlist. For them, Kinyounism symbolized a regime of public health that compromised local political, economic and social interest; they preferred traditional methods of hygiene and cleanliness to quarantine. Politically, they rejected federal interference in state business, undermining the federal responsibility to protect the United States against epidemic diseases.

Medically, they questioned the means of diagnosing plague bacteriologically, merging doubts about the emerging discipline with the uncertainty of what actually characterizes an outbreak of bubonic plague in the twentieth century. In the afternoon I telephoned to Dr. Kellogg, the bacteriologist for the City Board of Health, who informed me that he had made an examination of specimens of gland tissue from a Chinese, which showed some very suspicious forms. He asked if he could come over to the station with some of the tissue and make an examination here. On his arrival, new preparations were made, which when examined showed a number of very suspicious forms, which suggested plague.

I then suggested that animal inoculations be made with a small portion of the gland tissue. This was done, a rat, a guinea pig and a small monkey were inoculated. As Philip.


For Kinyoun, after inspecting the corpses, sufficient proof was given to accept the existence of plague in the city. Williamson and a number of respectable doctors from the San Francisco Medical Society, publicly backed by just one newspaper , the San Francisco Examiner.

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When health officials in San Francisco discovered bubonic plague in their city's Chinatown in , they responded with intrusive, controlling, and arbitrary. People and bubonic plague have a long and tragic history. When health officials in San Francisco thought they discovered plague in their city's Chinatown in.

The other side would constitute itself through the support of the Californian Governor William T. Gage, the Californian Board of Health, amplified through the strong voice of three large daily newspapers and equally supported by a number of respectable doctors from the San Francisco Clinical Society. The story of this defining conflict of the US public health system has been told many times.

It is usually presented as a classic case of political and economic interests trumping scientific rigour in order to prevent a drastic short-term damage to commerce and image while risking the long term effects of a dangerous epidemic. Governor Gage is often depicted as a leading figure in this conspiracy against science and health. Eager to protect the sanitary image of California from national and international isolation, he tried to influence doctors, politicians and political institutions to follow his direction.

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Most of the newspapers of San Francisco acted accordingly to the enormous commercial interests of their owners, well connected to the merchant and commerce associations, while the collaborating doctors are often portrayed as compliant experts, compromising their medical and scientific values to consolidate the conspiracy of plague, orchestrated and plotted by the federal bacteriologist J.

The sanitary officer would become a public target first in caricatures and public shaming, later on through a bounty on his head, needing a personal life guard throughout conducting his investigations throughout the bay area, before the director of the Marine Hospital Service, General Wyman gave in to political pressure and decided to deploy him elsewhere.

Kinyoun became a tragic hero in this historical drama of American public health. After finishing his studies in medicine, he began practicing medicine in in New York City and developed early on an outstanding interest in the emerging field of bacteriology. He entered the Marine Hospital Service and quickly associated himself with the Hygienic Laboratory, the first reference laboratory of the US. His exemplary 16 year career in the MHS corresponded with the rise and exponential growth of American microbiology.

Highlights from his time as a director of the Hygienic Laboratory have been the first isolation of the cholera bacillus on American soil, his research visits in Berlin with Robert Koch, in Paris with Emile Roux and in Japan with Kitasato Shobasuburo. And indeed, the newspapers, mostly the Call, fired a broadside: After a series of accusations against the major, the city Board of Health and their officials, the focus narrowed down on Kinyoun.

In the meantime, a few more cases had appeared, and Kinyoun had established a travel ban on Chinatown, which was lifted by the Court in June To prevent a spread of plague to the rest of the US, Kinyoun informed other state boards and quarantine stations of the immediate threat and was ordered by General Wyman to consequently widen the travel ban for everyone suspicious of having been infected. Federal quarantine officer at this port, has struck a serious blow at the property of California.

Abusing the autocratic powers of his position and without a care for the consequences of his extravagant action, he has placed the State under quarantine. He has paralyzed traffic, made the State an object of fear to the Union, jeopardizing every financial and industrial interest in California, and proclaimed to the world the dangerous falsehood that the most drastic measures are necessary to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague in this State.

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As far as any investigation can prove this action of Dr. Kinyoun is utterly without warrant. Every responsible investigator declares that if the bubonic plague ever was in San Francisco it is not here now. In the following weeks, the tone got rough. Kinyoun, on the other hand, was ready to inscribe himself into history.

In his letter to his friend, he responded to the allegations of the Call with his own interpretation of the disease he has become:. Given the statement of the Call , the reaction of Kinyoun and the historical interpretation of who conspired against what, the story of commercial interest on one end and scientific rigour at the other prevails.

But, as it remains to be shown, one should be careful in accepting this narrative all too easily. What Erwin Ackerknecht has argued for the anti-contagionist throughout the nineteenth century applies here as well:. To many of them, both slogans: freedom of commerce no quarantines , and freedom of science anticontagionism were, together with others, like freedom of the individual against any bureaucracy , the natural expression of the same fundamental attitude and social position.