Bacteriology as Conspiracy: Dr Kinyoun and the 1900 Plague in San Francisco

When the Third Plague Pandemic was announced to have reached San Francisco in March 1900, its arrival spread controversy, the impact of the outbreak was dismissed and its very existence openly denied. Being it Chinese doctors, local business associations, various influential gangs, the Californian Governor, the City’s Board of Health or the federal Marine Hospital Service: all held their own belief of what plague actually was, if it actually had arrived in the US mainland and if drastic measurements such as quarantining the Chinese quarters were indeed necessary. And just after a few days, not the epidemic but the strange science of bacteriology seemed to be plaguing the “Paris of the Pacific” (Chase 2003).

Ridiculing bacteriological procedures through newspapers, a deep-seated mistrust in laboratory medicine published in various medical journals, the outspoken denial by concerned politicians and businessmen crafted a climate in which bacteriology became a highly suspicious activity. Science, scientific methods and the chief representative during the outbreak, the federal bacteriologist Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun became itself not only marginalized, but openly suspected of conspiring against the city, of delivering false proof and of spreading the plague himself.

Retrospectively, Dr. Kinyoun became a heroic pioneer; hagiographers like to place him at the very origin of a modern US public health system, as he stood up to political opposition, legal prosecution and threats on his life to conquer both plague and public misconceptions. The paper will demonstrate that the condemnation of bacteriological knowledge, its demonization as a bearer of plague and its rejection as non-medical knowledge tells as much a story about political interests in the denial of plague, as it reflects the immature status of bacteriological practice at the time.

Bacteriology was a science in the making, a paradigm to be established and as such a heavily scrutinized practice whose usefulness needed to be achieved and demonstrated. As a weak paradigm, it provided the ideal target to deny the presence of plague. As a successful scientific method, it was supposed to give reason for drastic measures, costly quarantines and extensive campaigns. Bacteriology, the paper will show, was as dependent on the outbreak of plague to become a successful medical science, as bacteriology was needed to justify highly controversial methods of containment and to establish a modern public health service.

Lukas Engelmann

Presented at Suspect Science: Climate Change, Epidemics, and Questions of Conspiracy; CRASSH, University of Cambridge, 19 September 2015

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