The third plague: the 19th-century pandemic that killed 12 million people

Between 1855 and 1959 – more than 500 years after the medieval Black Death – a new plague pandemic ravaged the globe, killing some 12 million people...

Chinese plague

What was the Third Plague Pandemic?

The Third Plague Pandemic (1855–1959) was unprecedented for a number of reasons. For the first time in history, bubonic plague reached all five continents, striking major cities from Hong Kong (in 1894) to Bombay (1896), Sydney (1900), Cape Town (1901) and Los Angeles (1924). The pandemic left an estimated 12 million dead (including 10 million on the Indian subcontinent), and saw the implementation of extraordinary measures for its containment.

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The previous two plague pandemics (in 541–42 and 1346–53) had left society baffled as to its origins. Yet by the late 19th century scientists had a far greater understanding of plague – in fact, in Hong Kong in 1894, they were able to isolate the bacillus that caused it. By 1905, scientists had also acknowledged the role of the rat and the flea in plague transmission. Yet these discoveries did little to improve public health measures.

Quarantine, forced evacuations and torching neighbourhoods, such as Honolulu’s Chinatown (1900), were all employed against the pandemic, causing distress and conflict across afflicted areas.

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This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine