Portraits of plague: the third pandemic that killed 12 million people


It was an unprecedented plague. For the first time in history and for more than a century (1855-1959), bubonic plague (also known as the black plague) spread to all five continents. It became known as the third plague pandemic.  In different periods it affected citizens such as Hong Kong (1894), Bombái (1896), passing through Sydney (1900), Cape Town (1901) and Los Angeles (1924). Latin America also succumbed to its effects, passing through Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.
Autopsy preparations. An assistant sprays carbolic acid on a table before three protected doctors from head to toe examine a body.
It was an unprecedented plague. For the first time in history and for more than a century (1855-1959), bubonic plague (also known as the black plague) spread to all five continents. It became known as the third plague pandemic.
In different periods it affected citizens such as Hong Kong (1894), Bombái (1896), passing through Sydney (1900), Cape Town (1901) and Los Angeles (1924). Latin America also succumbed to its effects, passing through Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.
The pandemic left about 12 million dead (including 10 million in the Indian subcontinent) and led to the implementation of extraordinary measures for its containment.
The two previous plague pandemics (one between 541 and 542 and the other between 1346 and 1353) left societies perplexed trying to trace their origins.
The previous two pandemics left European communities stumped as to the origins of the plague.
pandemic:The previous two pandemics left European communities stumped as to the origins of the plague.
The previous two pandemics left European communities stumped as to the origins of the plague.
However, by the end of the 19th century, scientists already had a better understanding of the plague. In fact, in Hong Kong in 1894, they were able to isolate the bacillus that caused it.
By 1905, experts also identified the role that rats and fleas played in disease transmission. But these discoveries did little to improve public health measures.
The quarantine, forced evacuations, and burning of affected neighborhoods, as happened in Honolulu Chinatown, Hawaii, in 1900, was applied against the pandemic, causing anguish and conflict in the affected areas.
However, as the first epidemic of any type of infectious disease to be photographed as it spread across the globe, it left an extraordinary legacy in visual material.
Alexandre Emile Jean Yersin, a Swiss physician naturalized in France, discovered the responsible bacillus and gave it its name: Yersinia pestis.
pandemic: Alexandre Emile Jean Yersin, a Swiss physician naturalized in France, discovered the responsible bacillus and gave it its name: Yersinia pestis.
Alexandre Emile Jean Yersin, a Swiss physician naturalized in France, discovered the responsible bacillus and gave it its name: Yersinia pestis.
These images reveal the enormous and diverse impact that the plague had on different communities - from attempts to impose regulations on the roofing of houses and forced segregation, to efforts to control how people dealt with death.

Here are some of them:

Conflicts over prevention and containment measures: Hong Kong, 1894

The arrival of the plague in Hong Kong in 1894 sparked clashes between British colonial authorities and Chinese elites over measures taken against the outbreak and how to treat victims.
When the outbreak arose in the western part of the territory, the colonial authorities formed brigades of inspectors who marched through the streets, ordering the measures to be taken.
The question of where to hospitalize patients was a particular reason for discord. British brigades enforced the practice of opening windows, while Chinese doctors regarded the drafts as lethal.
The question of where to hospitalize patients was a particular reason for discord. British brigades enforced the practice of opening windows, while Chinese doctors regarded the drafts as lethal.
The question of where to hospitalize patients was a particular reason for discord. British brigades enforced the practice of opening windows, while Chinese doctors regarded the drafts as lethal.
Another one of the implanted orders was to vacate the houses of utensils and other belongings to burn them in the street.
Groups were also established to paint the houses with a lime solution as a disinfectant.
Groups were also established to paint the houses with a lime solution as a disinfectant.
The measures taken by the so-called Shropshire Brigade were praised by the British government for having curbed the infectious outbreak. However, the plague returned recurrently for decades, establishing a seasonal pattern.
Between 1910 and 1911, the plague struck northeast China, killing 60,000 people; the mortality rate among those infected was 100%.



Funeral rites: India Pandemic, 1897

The funeral traditions of Hindus and Muslims in India captivated the imagination of colonialist photographers.
Images like this one of a Hindu funeral pyre to incinerate the dead, taken in the town of Sonapur, were spread throughout the British press reporting on the disease.
Readers of the Victorian era in the UK were fascinated by what, for them, was an exotic society, in which the plague thrived.
Readers of the Victorian era in the UK were fascinated by what, for them, was an exotic society, in which the plague thrived.

Pioneering Treatments: India Plague, 1898

Paul-Louis Simond was the French physician who discovered that fleas were the conduit for the transmission of plague between rats and humans.
He also pioneered the treatment, such as that involving injecting an infected patient with serum.
Paul-Louis Simond injects the serum into a patient's abdomen.
pandemic: Paul-Louis Simond injects the serum into a patient's abdomen.
Paul-Louis Simond injects the serum into a patient's abdomen.
However, the procedure was controversial and could sometimes cost the patient his life. As such, the treatment became a motive for resistance in India against the anti-pest measures of the colonial government.

Fires in Honolulu, 1899-1900

Hawaii's capital of the islands, Honolulu, suffered from the arrival of the plague in 1899. The authorities' reaction was to close the port and Chinatown. They also burned the houses in that neighborhood that they considered unhealthy, as the following photograph shows:
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Critics condemned the strategy of setting fire to houses in Chinatown, accusing authorities of sinophobia.
Pandemic: Critics condemned the strategy of setting fire to houses in Chinatown, accusing authorities of sinophobia.
Critics condemned the strategy of setting fire to houses in Chinatown, accusing authorities of sinophobia.
On January 20, 1900, the fire in buildings affected by the plague in this area of ​​the city went out of control and an area of ​​more than 26 hectares was devastated by the flames.

Arrives in Latin America: Mexico, 1902

The plague reached Mazatlan, in the state of Sinaloa, in October 1902. The origin of the outbreak in the American continent was attributed to the Chinatown of San Francisco, California.
The epidemic produced, among other measures, the quarantine of the Mexican port and the isolation of infected people, who were evacuated from their homes on special stretchers.
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A victim of the plague is taken from his home in Mazatlán on a special stretcher.
Pandemic: A victim of the plague is taken from his home in Mazatlán on a special stretcher.
A victim of the plague is taken from his home in Mazatlán on a special stretcher.
From a hygiene perspective, the sanitary conditions of the city were criticized, especially garbage dumps and poor drainage systems.
Although some homes of the infected were burned, fumigation of streets and sewers was instituted.

Pandemic Disease: Manual and artisan spraying of the streets in Mazatlán.
Manual and artisan spraying of the streets in Mazatlán.

Gasoline Bathrooms: Liverpool, 1900-20

Although there was no widespread outbreak of plague in the UK, deaths were reported in Cardiff, Glasgow, and Suffolk. Cases were also reported in Liverpool, mainly in 1901, 1908, 1914, and 1916.
In an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease, Port of Liverpool Health Authority officials plunged the dead rats into buckets of gasoline.
Catching and killing the rats was not enough for the authorities in Liverpool.
This photographic documentation managed to capture different perspectives of a pandemic that affected all regions of the world differently and provide key information - even today - on its social, economic and political impact.
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