The December issue of Portland Monthly is always the History issue. The theme of this year’s History issue is Heroes.
I will have an article in it about Dr. Esther Pohl, who led the successful campaign to prevent San Francisco’s 1907 bubonic plague epidemic from reaching Portland. No other city on the West Coast managed it.
Esther Pohl pulled it off by yoking science and politics. By politics, I mean leadership, not back room deals.
The science that made it possible was the recent discovery that the plague bacillus was carried not by rats, but by fleas riding on rats. Until that connection was made, no city in all of human history had a chance against plague.
Of course, for most of human history, no city had a chance against plague, because they thought its cause was miasma, or sin, or foreigners. The realization dawned that rats were involved, sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Acting on partial knowledge was dangerous, because just killing rats would have sent fleas hopping off dead rats to look for new hosts.
Dr. Pohl made sure everyone in Portland knew they had to kill the fleas along with the rats, by burning or immersing in kerosene, before the rat’s body cooled.
Politics was just as important as correct science.
Pohl pushed city leadership to move quickly, but she pulled, she inspired, she exhorted, every resident to work together against their common enemy.
Women attended meetings to learn how to ratproof their homes. The Commercial Club, an early business organization, visited every business along the filthy riverfront to ensure cooperation, and hired crews to haul tons of rat-infested trash away. Newspapers kept the plague fight focused with accurate science reporting. Children caught rats and brought them to the city incinerator. Everyone had something to do. Under the common sense of threat, I imagine slackers were pressured to do their part.
Most public health operates perfectly well behind the scenes, invisibly. For example, to stop norovirus, which lives in water and causes diarrhea, you don’t need an engaged citizenry, just laws requiring clean water, and inspectors with the right tools to spot infractions.
But a city can’t stop plague without the cooperation of nearly everyone who lives there. If one rat, or one flea, slips through a weak link in the barricade, the battle’s lost. Portland, as far as I can determine, is the only town that ever beat the plague.