Chase, Marilyn 1949-

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CHASE, Marilyn 1949-


Born 1949, in Los Angeles, CA. Education: Stanford University, A.B., 1971; University of California—Berkeley, M.S., 1973.


Office—Wall Street Journal, 201 California St., Ste. 1350, San Francisco, CA 94111-5022.


Journalist. Arlington News, Arlington, VA, reporter, 1974-75; Arlington Journal, Arlington, reporter, 1975-76; New York Times, New York, NY, stringer, 1976-78; Wall Street Journal, San Francisco, CA, reporter, 1978-94, health reporter, 1994—.


The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.


As a San Francisco-based health writer for the Wall Street Journal, Marilyn Chase has written about medical science, including infectious disease and bioterrorism. Her first book, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, is a study of the first outbreak of bubonic plague in the United States, beginning with its first victim in 1900. USA Today Online reviewer Deirdre Donahue wrote that "although she doles out plenty of horrifying rodent details, Chase, with her elegant, subtle writing, brings alive the human victims, particularly the often-tragic lives of Chinese laborers trying to make a life for themselves in the country they called 'Gold Mountain.'"

It is suspected that the rats that carried the plague-infested fleas disembarked from the steamship Australia on January 2, after traveling from the Orient and stopping at Hawaii. Two months later, when lumber salesman Wong Chut King died of the disease, Chinatown was cordoned off and the infestation treated as a Chinese problem. Control was difficult in Chinatown, which was then densely populated, primarily by single men who had come to work and who had left their families behind in China. Because anti-Chinese sentiment had prevailed for decades, and because San Francisco was a bustling port that would suffer from this sort of bad news, most of the newspapers did not report on the illness and deaths. In addition, the Chinese feared Western doctors and found the idea of autopsies repulsive and disrespectful. Consequently, they often hid their dead, then smuggled the bodies out of the city. It was only when white citizens began to die that any real effort to control the rats that carried the fleas began.

Medical officer Joseph Kinyoun was in charge of the first wave of control, and it was he who imposed the racially discriminatory quarantines and mandatory vaccinations (both of which were struck down in the courts), along with restrictions on travel, the disinfecting of buildings, and the tearing down of wooden structures in Chinatown. Kinyoun, who was a dedicated but tactless scientist, made some headway in spite of his blatant disregard of cultural customs and civil rights. It wasn't until the 1906 earthquake, however, and subsequent fires that killed thousands of people, destroyed 250,000 homes, disabled the city, and released the disease-carrying rats that came out of hiding from within the underbelly of the city that control began in earnest.

By this time, the public health effort was being led by Rupert Blue, who was sent from Washington and who succeeded two other officers. Most of the victims were now white, and Blue concentrated his efforts on the environments where the rats tended to feed, breed, and live. He offered a ten-cent bounty for each one caught, dead or alive, and met with citizen groups, particularly women's groups, where he offered guidelines for housecleaning in the urban environment. He forced butchers to clean up the slaughterhouses and replaced wooden buildings with concrete. He also used a Chinese translator to understand and communicate cultural traditions to the English-speaking officials. The plague subsided, in part because the American flea did not transmit the disease as well as the Asian flea. In all, fewer than 300 people died during this entire period, but Chase's book shows that it wasn't until political and business interests were put aside that real progress could be made. Bubonic plague still exists in the Western United States, although cases are infrequent and can be treated effectively with antibiotics.

Chase drew on archives and the personal papers of those involved in writing the history. Judith Walzer Leavitt wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Chase "uncovers the Chinese points of view, especially the individual stories of plague victims, not covered as fully in previous studies. This all makes The Barbary Plague a pleasure to read, full of people, dramatic situations, individual foibles, and collective hard work. I closed the book wishing it had been longer."



Booklist, March 1, 2003, Vanessa Bush, review of The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco, p. 1129.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2002, review of The Barbary Plague, p. 1815.

Library Journal, February 1, 2003, Marit MacArthur Taylor, review of The Barbary Plague, p. 112.

New York Times Book Review, April 27, 2003, Judith Walzer Leavitt, review of The Barbary Plague, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly, December 16, 2002, review of The Barbary Plague, p. 52.


Metroactive, (April 10, 2003), Michael S. Gant, review of The Barbary Plague.

USA Today Online, (March 31, 2002), Deirdre Donahue, review of The Barbary Plague. *