by Michael Sappol
The Bubonic Plague and How to Prevent It, 1897
This roughly-printed small pamphlet (4¼” x 5½”; 30 pages) documents a big catastrophe: an outbreak of bubonic plague in British Colonial India. The disease came to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1897 and swept through the city at a terrible pace. At the height of the epidemic, 1,900 people were dying every week, in a population of 820,000. From Bombay the plague spread in several directions, establishing another center in the city of Karachi and the provinces of Sind and Punjab, in present-day Pakistan.
Published in Urdu and English, the pamphlet, “seventy thousand copies of which [were] distributed gratis among the people in plague stricken districts of the Punjab by H. Muhammad Sharif,” was part of an effort to educate the public about the nature of the disease, its symptoms and mode of infection, history, and methods of containment. Germ theory was then very new. Author H. Calvert, “Officiating Deputy Commissioner,” took particular pains to explain that the plague is not caused by the “Fates” or “gods…angry and…hurling dire calamities on earth” but by germs that can be seen under a microscope and distinguished “by observation and experiment” from other microbial organisms. “Infuse these germs by means of a syringe into the body of an animal and you will at once percieve [sic] symptoms of epidimic [sic] disease….”
In any event, microbiology was in its infancy—Alexandre Yersin and Shibasaburo Kitasatō had only identified the bacterial organism that caused bubonic plague in 1894—and colonial administrators had few good weapons to fight the disease in India’s overcrowded cities. Their strategy, outlined in the pamphlet, was to mobilize the public, organized by religion, caste and tribe, and try every conceivable tactic: a bounty on mice and rats, exhortations to refrain from touching the sick and the dead, whitewashing and disinfecting buildings (with toxic chemicals and “disinfectant powders at hand”), “inoculation” and “prophylactic serum” (although no effective serum then existed and inoculation did not work), barriers to keep people from moving to or from infected areas, the erection of temporary hospitals, closing public latrines, and sanitary provisions to isolate, cremate or bury the dead.
There is no way to know how many lives were saved by these measures, but the overall effort was woefully inadequate. By 1899, cases of bubonic plague had been recorded as far away as Madras in southern India and over 250,000 people had perished in India alone. Even then the plague was not finished. In 1899 it crossed the Pacific Ocean from Hong Kong to Honolulu and appeared the following year in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
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