- Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894–1901
Reading Myron Echenberg's detailed report about the global plague epidemic at the turn of the twentieth century, it is hard to escape paraphrasing on Tolstoy's famous opening sentence for Anna Karenina. While it's not sure whether healthy cities are all alike, it is clear that every unhealthy city is unhealthy in its own way. [End Page 379]
Plague Ports examines ten case studies of port cities (Hong Kong, Bombay, Sydney, Honolulu, San Francisco, Porto, Alexandria, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires) hit by bubonic plague in the wake of the world's third documented world plague pandemic that occurred between the years 1894 and 1901. Based on a wide selection of primary and secondary literature, Echenberg's book provides a thorough and detailed account of the plague's development in each of these cities. The book is edited as a series of independent stories, which together provide different and varied viewpoints of that global event. On the one hand, it shows the particular aspects of each city and the differences between the plague's trajectories in each. It seems, for instance, that a huge chasm separates the civil cooperation among all the religious and national groups in Alexandria from the racist and paternalistic attitude of the authorities toward black people in Cape Town. On the other hand, the book clearly reveals repeating similarities between different cities in distant continents, such as the use of ethnic minorities and immigrants as scapegoats, alienation between different social classes, central and local governments simultaneously promoting contradictory policies, and heated debates between different medical schools.
Despite dealing essentially with illness, misery, and grievance, the book provides a pleasurable reading. Beyond the technical accounts about the plague and its social and political sphere, it also brings picturesque descriptions and colorful images of life in the relevant cities. Another interesting component of the plot is the little personal stories of the people who played some role—either central or marginal—in this worldwide saga: from touching stories of some of the sick and unfortunate victims, to those of scientists, physicians, and stakeholders who tried to deal with the disease. Echenberg is doing very well in this not-so-easy task of weaving together these separate threads of public and personal stories into one comprehensive and enjoyably readable narrative.
The relevance of this research to our own day is evident when one thinks about the great fears evoked by such diseases as SARS and bird flu, to name just two examples from recent years. As ever faster jets circle around the globe, and as the world's trade of goods and products is growing every year, other epidemics might show up—learning lessons from past ones might be of benefit. The book's series of accounts about the different case studies can also help us learn about human societies, as they are put to the test by a horrifying epidemic.
Plague Ports should therefore interest a vast readership. First, it should certainly be read by physicians—epidemiologists and public [End Page 380] health experts in particular—as it delivers detailed comparative accounts both of the primary conditions in the places where the plague struck and of the medical authorities' response to the epidemic. The measures and consequences described in the book might help medical experts learn some dos and don'ts from their predecessors' experience, not only in dealing with the disease itself, but also with explaining it to a frightened public and pushing stubborn and sometimes ignorant authorities into effective action. The book's descriptions of mistakes and failures done by too overly confident physicians may teach all those practicing medicine today a good lesson in both modesty and humility. The book can also be of value for those interested in the specific cities it examines: each of the book's chapters portrays a vivid image of a city's cultural, social, and economic life at the turn of the twentieth...