Throughout history, Asian Americans have been unfairly blamed for numerous widespread diseases; the San Francisco Plague of 1900-1904 was one of these instances.

What Happened?

Although Europe was the first to experience large outbreaks of the bubonic plague during the 14th and 17th century, the disease soon spread to China and India in the 19th century and continued to ravage the globe in the years after. In 1894, doctors identified the bacterium Yersinia pestis as the cause of the plague, but various other pieces of information-- how it spread, the treatment, and how to prevent it-- were all still unknown. Joseph Kinjoun, a doctor at San Francisco's Marine Hospital Service, suspected the plague would spread to San Francisco since it killed two sailors in December of 1899, the year before. He was worried that the city wouldn't be prepared with the necessary resources to stop it in time, but the government disagreed with his view. Unfortunately, his prediction was correct.

At the turn of the 20th century, the bubonic plague arrived in the United States when trade and travel in San Francisco were at its peak. Wong Chut King, a Chinese immigrant, had gone to the then-independent Hawaiian islands and later died with swollen lymph nodes, a symptom of the plague, on March 6th, 1900. When a city health officer autopsied his body, organisms that looked like the bacteria causing the bubonic plague were discovered too. It was predicted that the pathogen continued on a normal trade route into San Francisco, California, which then caused the outbreak. Immediately, the city, which was strongly anti-Chinese at that time, quarantined Chinatown and its 20,000 residents. This action incited objections from the Chinese, who thought it was unfair for the city to target Chinatown specifically. The business community opposed the quarantine as well, simply because they wished to protect their profits and not the rights of the Chinese.

Meanwhile, the suppression of accurate news reported about the bubonic plague resulted in the escalation of misinformation. Many falsely believed that those of European descent had immunity to the plague. A newspaper at that time even informed white readers that they had no reason to be concerned about the plague infecting them. Local Californian officials, politicians, and countless other people were worried that if the rest of the country knew about the outbreak, the state would have to stop all travel and trade, therefore losing money. To protect their income, they tried a variety of methods to dissuade Joseph Kinyoun from spreading information about it and tried to hide the news of the plague from other states, even if it meant endangering the public's health. Moreover, city health officials ignored Kinyoun's advice to investigate the plague further. Instead, they selectively quarantined Chinatown. Even with the mounting political pressure from the public, he refused to stay silent, continued to push for vaccination, and supported screening for those who were leaving California by sea or rail. Kinyoun obtained numerous enemies due to his continous efforts, and soon, he was transferred out of the city.

Kinyoun obtained numerous enemies due to his continuous efforts, and soon, he was transferred out of the city. Despite their efforts in downplaying the plague, refusing to acknowledge its presence, and labeling it "fake news," the news eventually reached the rest of the country as the plague worsened. As a result, more and more states halted trade with California. Rupert Blue, who later replaced Joseph Kinyoun, fought to improve sanitation measures in Chinatown to combat the crisis. He was the first person to link the appearance of rats to the bubonic plague outbreak and concluded that rats were key to the spread of the disease. He managed a city-wide cleanup, which included laying asphalt sidewalks, tearing down shacks and lean-to's, and trapping rats. His solution was so effective that the number of cases dwindled to almost none in early 1905. In the end, the city confirmed 121 cases of the plague and more than 100 deaths in San Francisco. Although the outbreak ended, a few cases of the bubonic plague still emerged in the following years. In parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and California today, some rates still carry the bubonic plague. About seven cases appear in the USA every year, but now, thanks to modern technology and innovative medicine, health professionals can use antibodies to effectively cure the disease.

What were the Social Effects of the Plague?

Before, San Francisco's general public was already anti-Chinese, but with the outbreak, the discrimination against the Chinese only increased. Whenever sanitary programs encountered failures, local health officials would blame it on the living conditions among the Chinese, which they frequently criticized. It was such a popular belief that epidemic outbreaks were directly attributed to the Chinese and Chinatown that many physicians thought so too. At that time, the public considered the Chinese to be "inferior" and made various arguments against the Chinese in America, which included:

Schools that originally were not planning on virtual classes most likely will embed online classes into their curriculum. International students will then have to confront difficulties when taking virtual classes in their own country, such as taking their classes at midnight to fit the time zone of the U.S.

Furthermore, Asian students will be affected the most because the top three originating countries for international students are China, India, and South Korea. Having international students leave the U.S. will create additional hardships for them on top of adapting to online learning. Education should be welcomed to any student no matter where they are from and a student’s health and well being should also be the top priority for everyone.

States/Universities that are helping:

On Thursday, July 9th, the State attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, announced that California will be the first state to file a lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s new policy for International students.

Numerous universities have also filed lawsuits against the issue and/or are speaking out publicly to support their international students. Harvard and MIT, two universities that account for an estimate of 4000-5000 international students each, sued the Trump Administration on July 8th after announcing that most courses will be brought online in response to COVID-19 for the fall semester. Other universities that are taking action include the University of California, Northwestern University, Columbia University, New York University, Stanford University, University of Southern California, and Cornell University.

How to Help

  • Petition : Make ICE allow International students to stay in the US
  • Make the change by contacting your state representatives and senators through their phone and/or email and demand that they stand against ICE’s new policy and publicly speak out about the issue, remaining firmly in opposition to the policy.
  • If you are an international student, contact your school to see if there are any possible in-person classes that you can take.

“Until we get equality in education, we won’t have an equal society” - Sonia Sotomayor


  • “A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: Bubonic Plague Hits San Francisco.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 
  • Barry, Rebecca Rego. “San Francisco's Plague Years.” Science History Institute, 10 Sept. 2019, 
  • Tansey, Tilli. “Plague in San Francisco: Rats, Racism and Reform.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 24 Apr. 2019, 
  • Trauner, Joan B. Chinese as Medical Scapegoats, 1870-1905.