WCC Book Club

April 6th – Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague by David K. Randall. Francie Pyle will lead the discussion.

The story is a complex tale of medicine, politics, race, and public health. It is a spine-chilling saga of racism, human folly, and the ultimate triumph of scientific progress.

At the end of 1899, bubonic plague broke out in Honolulu, with an unknown number of deaths and panic in its wake. Public health officials on the mainland knew that San Francisco was likely next, and they mounted a campaign of quarantine. Even so, crowded Chinatown, in the heart of the city, saw the first cases. A dilemma followed, with Marine Health Service bureau chief Joseph Kinyoun wrestling with whether to cordon off the area.

For Chinese immigrant Wong Chut King, surviving in San Francisco meant a life in the shadows. His passing on March 6, 1900, would have been unremarkable if a city health officer hadn’t noticed a swollen black lymph node on his groin – a sign of bubonic plague. Empowered by racist pseudoscience, officials rushed to quarantine Chinatown while doctors examined Wong’s tissue for telltale bacteria. If the devastating disease was not contained, San Francisco would become the American epicenter of an outbreak that had already claimed ten million lives worldwide.

To local press, railroad barons, and elected officials, such a possibility was inconceivable – or inconvenient. As they mounted a cover-up to obscure the threat, ending the career of one of the most brilliant scientists in the nation in the process, it fell to federal health officer Rupert Blue to save a city that refused to be rescued. Spearheading a relentless crusade for sanitation, Blue and his men patrolled the squalid streets of fast-growing San Francisco, examined gory black buboes, and dissected diseased rats that put the fate of the entire country at risk. Although Blue, faced much opposition, he was more successful in his campaign of “eliminating hundreds of thousands of rats from the streets and sewers.”

Chaos returned with the great earthquake that struck the city, and Blue, who ran into trouble with his bosses in Washington, was assigned elsewhere only to return to Randall’s narrative decades later in Los Angeles, where plague had appeared. There are many moving parts to the story, and the author reveals the public and private interests surrounding the outbreak – and, he notes, the bubonic plague still pops up from time to time in the U.S.

A tale that resonates with the outbreak of measles, mumps, and other supposedly contained epidemics today.

Please join us on April 6th, at 4:00 pm in the Clubroom, as we discuss Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague.

May 4th – American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Drug cartels transform the life of a woman and her son from comfortable living to migrants. Barbara Dukart will lead the discussion.