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The First Time the Plague Broke Out in the US, Officials Tried to Deny It

November 15, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Newspapers and politicians claimed the doctor trying to stop the plague had made the whole thing up.

At the turn of the 20th century, the world was gripped by a .

“There was a very real threat that California’s $40 million fresh produce industry…would be lost,” she says. With that in mind, “the state actually appealed to and secured the collaboration of the surgeon general of the United States” to keep word of the disease silent.

Official silence about the disease also entailed undermining Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, the head of the Marine Hospital Service in San Francisco who had identified the plague bacteria in King’s body. As a public health official, he was determined to stop the disease from spreading. At the same time, local politicians, business owners and newspapers were determined to discredit him, says David K. Randall, a reporter for Reuters and author of Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague.

“You had the local newspapers calling [Kinyoun] a fake, calling him suspicious, implying that he was just trying to take money from the public coffers and this was all a big scam,” he says. These newspapers even suggested “he was injecting dead bodies with plague so that he looked like a hero.” Business leaders and politicians echoed this rhetoric. “A state senator in Sacramento stood on the senate floor and said that Kinyoun should be hanged for what he was doing,” he says.

New Field of Medical Science Met With Skepticism

Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun.

This large-scale denial of the plague was also, in part, a rejection of a new type of science that few understood. Kinyoun, who is now known as the father of the National Institutes of Health, was at the forefront of the field of medical bacteriology. Unlike doctors from an earlier era, Kinyoun used a microscope to study microorganisms his patients couldn’t see. California Governor Henry Gage was particularly averse to this new science.

“[Gage] basically said: If you can’t see the disease, if you can’t see what’s happening, then how do I know it exists?” Randall says. And like many others in California, Gage wasn’t even sure white people could get the plague in the first place. “The idea was that if your ancestors had survived the plague in Europe, then you somehow evolved immunity,” he says.

Contrary to this misguided belief, the …read more


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