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A ‘Suitable Soil’: Plague’s Urban Breeding Grounds at the Dawn of the Third Pandemic

  • Christos Lynteris
Abstract

A pressing question during the first half-decade of the third plague pandemic (1894–9) was what was a ‘suitable soil’ for the disease. The question related to plague’s perceived ability to disappear from a given city only to reappear at some future point; a phenomenon that became central to scientific investigations of the disease. However, rather than this simply having a metaphorical meaning, the debate around plague’s ‘suitable soil’ actually concerned the material reality of the soil itself. The prevalence of plague in the working-class neighbourhood of Taipingshan during the first major outbreak of the pandemic, in 1894 in Hong Kong, led to an extensive debate regarding the ability of the soil to harbour and even spread the disease. Involving experiments, which were seen as able to procure evidence for or against the demolition or even torching of the area, scientific and administrative concerns over the soil rendered it an unstable yet highly productive epistemic thing. The spread of plague to India further fuelled concerns over the ability of the soil to act as the medium of the disease’s so-called true recrudescence. Besides high-profile scientific debates, hands-on experiments on purifying the soil of infected houses by means of highly intrusive methods allowed scientists and administrators to act upon and further solidify plague’s supposed invisibility in the urban terrain. Rather than being a short-lived, moribund object of epidemiological concern, this paper will demonstrate that the soil played a crucial role in the development of plague as a scientifically knowable and actionable category for modern medicine.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
* Email address for correspondence: cl537@cam.ac.uk
Footnotes
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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference Plague and the City: Disease, Epidemic Control and the Urban Environment at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) of the University of Cambridge. I would like to thank Lukas Engelmann, Nicholas Evans, Marta Hanson, John Henderson, Robert Peckham and Branwyn Poleykett for stimulating discussions on plague and the urban environment. Research leading to this article was funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme ERC grant agreement no. 336564) for the project ‘Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic’ at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

Footnotes
References
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1. Mauritius, Report of the Special Committee of the Council of Government on Plague, 16 May 1899, enclosed in Plague General Despatches 1900 January–May. Colonial Office, Series MH 19/259, CO 24828.

2. Barnes, David S., The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle against Filth and Germs (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

3. It should be noted that the bacteriological implication of the soil as a carrier or source of plague originally preceded and then run parallel to similar problematisations of typhoid fever in England, without, however, any direct reference on the part of colonial plague experts to typhoid-related research back in Britain; Jacob Steere-Williams, ‘Performing State Medicine during its “Frustrating” Years: Epidemiology and Bacteriology at the Local Government Board, 1870–1900’, Social History of Medicine, 28, 1 (2015), 82–107.

4. Recent studies suggest evidence of plague remaining alive and virulent in the soil (for up to 40 weeks, indicated in the case of Ayyadurai et al. 2008); S. Ayyadurai, L. Houhamdi, H. Lepidi, C. Nappez, D. Raoult and M. Drancourt, ‘Long-Term Persistence of Virulent Yersinia pestisin Soil’, Microbiology, 154 (2008), 2865–71; R. J. Eisen, J. M. Petersen, C. L. Higgins, D. Wong, C. E. Levy, P. S. Mead, M. E. Schriefen, K. S. Griffith, K. L. Cage and C. B. Beard, ‘Persistence of Yersinia pestis in Soil under Natural Conditions’, Emerging Infectious Diseases, 14, 6 (June 2008), 941–3.

5. Mollaret, H. H., ‘Conservation expérimentale de la peste dans le sol’, Bulletin de la Société de pathologie exotique, 56, 6 (November 1963), 1168–82.

6. Ibid., 10. Mollaret conducted her own experiments with plague in the soil, acquiring positive results.

7. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session: 1894 [C.7461] [C.7545]. Hong Kong. Correspondence Relative to the Outbreak of Bubonic Plague at Hong Kong.

8. Sutphen, Mary P., ‘Not What, but Where: Bubonic Plague and the Reception of Germ Theories in Hong Kong and Calcutta’, Journal of History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 52 (January 1997), 81–113.

9. Kitasato, Shibasaburō, ‘The Bacillus of Bubonic Plague’, The Lancet, 144, 3704 (25 August 1894), 428–30; Alexandre Yersin, ‘La peste bubonique á Hong Kong’, Annales de l’ Institut Pasteur, 8 (1894), 662–7.

10. Lowson, James A., Handwritten Report, 16 May 1894, enclosed in Robinson to Ripon, 17 May 1894. Colonial Office. Original Correspondence: Hong Kong 1841–1951; Series 129/263, CO 10928.

11. Ibid.

12. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session: 1878–9 [C. 2262], Plague. Papers Relating to the Modern History and Recent Progress of Levantine Plague; prepared from time to time by direction of the president of the Local Government Board, with other papers, 28. See also, C. Zuber, ‘Rapport sur une missione médicale en Russie: La peste du gouvernement d’Astrakhan’, Recueil des travaux du Comité Consultatif d’hygiène publique de France et des actes officiels de l’administration sanitaire (Paris: A. Lahure, 1880) vol. 9, 87–167.

13. Benedict, Carol A., Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 107.

14. Rocher, Emile, La province Chinoise du Yunnan (Paris: Lerous, 1879); A. Rennie, ‘Report on the Plague Prevailing in Canton during the Spring and Summer of 1894’, Imperial Customs Maritime Report for the Year Ended 30th September, 1894, 47th and 48th issues; J. L. Michoud ‘Report on the Health of Mengtsz for the Year Ended 30th April 1894’, China Imperial Maritime Customs Medical Reports, 1894, Special Series, No. 2. Yersin also mentioned Rocher on the infection of rats and other animals in his original plague discovery article (op. cit., note 13). A key proponent of the theory that plague first strikes shorter and then taller animals was James Lowson; Hong Kong Government Gazette, GA 1895 no. 146; Medical Report on the Epidemic of Bubonic Plague in 1894 (incorporating J. A. Lowson, ‘The Epidemic of Bubonic Plague in Hong Kong, 1894’) (13 April 1895), 369–422.

15. Enclosure ‘Gazette June 29, 1894’, in Robinson to Ripon 30 July 1894. Colonial Office. Original Correspondence: Hong Kong 1841–1951; Series 129/263, CO 13259.

16. Barnes, op. cit. (note 2); E. Cockayne, Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); M. Bradley (ed.) Pollution and Propriety: Dirt and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). On the ‘occult nature of Victorian dirt’, see C. Herbert, ‘Rat Worship in Mayhew’s London’, Representations, 23 (Summer 1988), 1–24: 8.

17. In R. Peckham, ‘Hong Kong Junk: Plague and the Economy of Chinese Things’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 90 (2016), 32–60: 44.

18. See in particular D. S. Barnes ‘Cargo, “Infection”, and the Logic of Quarantine in the Nineteenth Century’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 88, 1 (Spring 2014), 75–101; P. Stallybrass and A. White, ‘The city: the sewer, the gaze and the contaminating touch’, in J. Farquhar and M. Lock (eds), Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 266–85; R. el-Khoury, ‘Polish and deodorize: paving the city in late eighteenth-century France’, in J. Drobnick (ed.) The Smell Culture Reader (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 18–28.

19. Peckham, op. cit. (note 17).

20. Tsai, J.-F., Hong Kong in Chinese History: Community and Social Unrest in the British Colony, 1842–1913 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). On plague and class in Hong Kong, see also M. P. Sutphen, ‘Rumoured power: Hong Kong, 1894 and Cape Town, 1901’, in Andrew Cunningham and Bridie Andrews (eds) Western Medicine as Contested Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 241–61.

21. Anon., ‘Plague in the Far East’, British Medical Journal, 2, 1860 (22 August 1896), 460.

22. Aoyoma’s Report upon the Bubonic Plague (the substance of a report made to the Journal Club of the Johns Hopkins Hospital by Simon Flexner M.D.); offprint of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, 66–7 (September–October 1896), 3.

23. Chu, Cecilia, ‘Combating nuisance: sanitation, regulation, and the politics of property in colonial Hong Kong’, in Peckham, Robert and Pomfret, David M. (eds), Imperial Contagions: Medicine, Hygiene and Cultures of Planning in Asia (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 1736: 31; ‘Mr. Chadwick’s Reports on the Sanitary Condition of Hong Kong; With Appendices and Plans.’ Colonial Office, Eastern No. 38, CO 882/4/15.

24. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, enclosed in Robinson to Ripon, 30 August 1894. Colonial Office. Original Correspondence: Hong Kong 1841–1951; Series 129/263, CO 17303.

25. Ibid.

26. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, op. cit. (note 24).

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid. ‘Resumption’ here referred to the repossession of the land and its re-development.

29. Sutphen, op. cit. (note 8), 98.

30. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, op. cit. (note 24).

31. Ibid.

32. Older miasmatic theories of plague relied on ‘the action of the heat in destroying plague’ as a proof of the disease not being contagious; Ph. Jenks, An Essay on the Analogy of the Asiatic and African Plague and the American Yellow (Philadelphia, PA: Hugh Maxwell, 1804), 14.

33. Hong Kong Government Gazette, GA 1895 no. 117; Report, Scheme for the Improvement of the Resumed Area in Taipingshan (incorporating Correspondence No. 132 by Francis A. Cooper, Director of Public Works, 22 March 1895) (30 March 1895), 262–5: 264. Cooper retorted that it was sanitary measures and not the fire that eradicated plague in London. Even if fire were applied, Cooper reasoned, the heat would fail to penetrate the surface of the ground to a desirable effect.

34. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, op. cit. (note 24).

35. Chu, op. cit. (note. 23).

36. Sutphen, op. cit. (note 8), 96–7. The Koch connection relates to the famous discovery of anthrax spores by the German doctor.

37. On Lowson see T. Solomon, ‘Hong Kong, 1894: The Role of James A. Lowson in the Controversial Discovery of the Plague Bacillus’, The Lancet, 350, 9070 (5 July 1997), 59–62.

38. Hong Kong Government Gazette, GA 1895 no. 146, op. cit. (note 14).

39. Ibid., 400.

40. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, op. cit. (note 24).

41. Andrew Mendelsohn, J., ‘The Microscopist of Modern Life’, Osiris, 2nd ser., 18, Science and the City (2003), 150–70.

42. Archives Institut Pasteur, Fonds: Yersin Alexandre, Cote: YER.5 – Lieu : A1/13, my translation.

43. Yersin appears enthusiastic about this in his correspondence to his mother; Archives Institut Pasteur, Fonds: Yersin Alexandre Cote: YER.Cor1 – Lieu: A1/13.

44. Archives Institut Pasteur, Fonds: Yersin Alexandre Cote: YER.5 – Lieu: A1/13.

45. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, op. cit. (note 24).

46. Ibid.

47. Hong Kong Government GazetteGA 1895 no. 146, op. cit. (note 14), 400.

48. James A. Lowson to Kitasato Shibasaburo, Correspondence 10 August 1894, uncatalogued item at Kitasato Memorial Museum, Tokyo. Not in use at the time, the term Bacillus Kitasatoiensiswas here clearly employed to establish Kitasato’s priority in the discovery of the bacillus which was generally referred to as Pasteurella pestis until 1944 when it was renamed Yersinia pestis, after Alexandre Yersin. On Lowson’s antipathy for Yersin and the wider Kitasato-Yersin conflict, see D. J. Bibel and T. E. Chen, ‘Diagnosis of Plague: An Analysis of the Yersin-Kitasato Controversy’, Bacteriological Reviews, 40, 3 (September 1976), 633–51, and Solomon, ‘Hong Kong, 1894’, op. cit. (note 37).

49. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, op. cit. (note 24).

50. Chu, op. cit. (note 23).

51. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, op. cit. (note 24).

52. Yersin gives no explanation as to how this correction was reached; Hong Kong Government Gazette, GA 1895 no. 117; Report, Scheme for the Improvement of the Resumed Area in Taipingshan (incorporating Correspondence No. 132 by Francis A. Cooper, Director of Public Works, 22 March 1895) (30 March 1895), 262–5.

53. Craddock, Susan, City of Plagues: Disease, Poverty, and Deviance in San Francisco (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) , 8.

54. Latour, Bruno, The Pasteurization of France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). Andrew Cunningham, ‘Transforming plague, the laboratory and the identity of infectious disease’, in A. Cunningham and P. Williams (eds), The Laboratory Revolution in Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 209–44. On the question of the limitations of the laboratory’s impact on plague research, see Christos Lynteris, Ethnographic Plague: Configuring Disease on the Chinese-Russian Frontier (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

55. Smith, Shawn Michelle, At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

56. Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg, Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 29.

57. On the notion of difference in experimental systems see, ibid., and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, ‘Difference Machines: Time in Experimental Systems’, Configurations,23, 2 (Spring 2015), 165–76.

58. Blumenberg, Hans, Theorie der Unbegrifflichkeit [The Theory of Unconceptuality] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007); Rheinberger, ‘Difference Machines’, op. cit. (note 57).

59. Lowson, James A., Report on the Epidemic of Plague [in Bombay] from 22 February to 16 July 1897. British Library: Asian and African Studies; IOR/V/27/856/13.

60. Ibid.

61. Cantlie, James, ‘The Plague in Hong Kong’, The British Medical Journal, 2, 1756 (25 August 1894), 423–7.

62. Hankin employed exactly the same term in his influential 1905 paper, ‘On the Epidemiology of Plague’, The Journal of Hygiene, 5, 1 (January 1905), 48–83. As Mollaret (op. cit. (note 5)) has argued, Hankin’s actual approach to the soil appears to be self-contradictory; though all his experiments in procuring a plague culture from the soil proved fruitless, he nonetheless claimed that the transfer of the bacterium from the rat’s body into the soil might be necessary in order for it to retain its virulence across time.

63. Cantlie, James, ‘The Spread of Plague’, The Lancet, 1, 3828 (9 January 1897), 89.

64. Ibid, 85. The lecture would be printed in two instalments in The Lancetas well as in pamphlet form.

65. Ibid, 89.

66. Ibid, 85.

67. Ibid, 89.

68. Correspondence re Improvement of Tai-Ping Shan, op. cit. (note 24).

69. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session: 1900 [Cd.810]; Indian Plague Commission, 1898–9. Report of the Indian Plague Commission with appendices and summary. Vol. V, 176.

70. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session: 1900 [Cd.140] Indian Plague Commission, 1898–9. Minutes of Evidence Taken by the Indian Plague Commission with appendices. Vol. II. Evidence taken from 11th January 1899 to 8th February 1899, 16,149; 1,947; 21,197; 21,537.

71. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session 1900 [Cd.139] Indian Plague Commission, 1898–9. Minutes of Evidence Taken by the Indian Plague Commission with appendices. Vol. I. Evidence taken from 29th November 1898 to 5th January 1899, 6,898–6,900. The porosity of the soil was another factor considered, following Pettenkofer (Ibid: 8,311–25).

72. See in particular, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session: 1900 [Cd.140], op. cit. (note 70), 15,198; House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session: 1900 [Cd.141] Indian Plague Commission, 1898–9. Minutes of Evidence Taken by the Indian Plague Commission with appendices. Vol. III, 17,775; Hong Kong Government Gazette GA 1895 no. 146, op. cit. (note 14), 375. This notion would be further promoted by comparative research conducted by Kitasato’s partner Dr Aoyoma in Japanese-ruled Taiwan; House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session: 1900 [Cd.810], op. cit. (note 69). It should be noted here that the eventual discrediting of the soil hypothesis relied on evidence that there was no difference in inguinal bubo prevalence between ‘booted Australians’ and ‘the barefooted Indians of Bombay’ – ‘If the plague infection was derived from the soil the latter class of person ought to develop more groin buboes than the former’; W.B. Bannerman, ‘The Spread of Plague in India’, The Journal of Hygiene, 6, 2 (April 1906), 179–211: 209.

73. Clemow, Franck, ‘The Plague in Calcutta’, The Lancet, 2, 3916 (17 September 1898), 738–42: 741.

74. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session 1900 [Cd.139], op. cit. (note 71), 1,097; House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session: 1900 [Cd. 140], op. cit. (note 70), 9,168.

75. Anon., ‘The Plague in Hyderabad State: A Report by Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrie I.M.S.’, The Lancet, 1, 3935 (28 January 1899), 249–350: 250.

76. Stevens, A. H., ‘Memorandum on the Treatment of Plague-Infected Premises and the Destruction of the Infection by the Kiln-Process of Burning’, enclosed in House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session 1900 [Cd.139], op. cit. (note 71).

77. Ibid.

78. Anon., ‘The Plague’, British Medical Journal2, 1982 (24 December 1898), 1906–07.

79. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session 1900 [Cd.139], op. cit. (note 71).

80. Ibid.

81. Ibid; see also, Anon., ‘The Plague in Hyderabad State’, op. cit. (note 75), 250.

82. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Session 1901 [Cd.748]; Local Government Board. Reports and papers on bubonic plague, by Dr R. Bruce Low, 375–6.

83. Punjab. Plague Department, Punjab Plague Hand-book, 1905. Lahore, 1905; British Library: Asian and African Studies; IOR/V/27/856/58.

84. Rheinberger, ‘Difference Machines’, op. cit. (note 57), 166.

85. Ibid., 168.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference Plague and the City: Disease, Epidemic Control and the Urban Environment at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) of the University of Cambridge. I would like to thank Lukas Engelmann, Nicholas Evans, Marta Hanson, John Henderson, Robert Peckham and Branwyn Poleykett for stimulating discussions on plague and the urban environment. Research leading to this article was funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme ERC grant agreement no. 336564) for the project ‘Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic’ at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

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