The bubonic plague, known as the “Black Death” is a disease that killed nearly 60 percent of the European population in the 1400s. But this disease wasn’t confined to Europe, and what most people don’t know is that the plague reached the shores of the United States.  

The first U.S. case of the plague presented in the early 1900s in San Francisco. Author, David Randall tells the story of Wong Chut King in his book, Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague. King was an immigrant living in Chinatown in San Francisco when he contracted the disease, but he likely had no idea what ailed him.

It wasn’t till after Wong Chut King’s death that a public health inspector recognized the tell-tale signs of the plague. Within a few hours all of Chinatown was quarantined. Federal health officers took major steps like putting in cement sidewalks instead of wood, implementing street sweeps and having people turn in rats for money. Because of these sanitation practices, the disease was prevented from spreading through the city.

Fast forward to today where the plague is still present in certain parts of the U.S. Professor Michael Antolin studies modern-day cases of the disease and its context within climate change. Antolin says that 6 to 10 people in the U.S. are exposed to the disease each year.

Climate change can impact people in different ways because of the area they live in. The places that are dark, damp and cool are most likely to have domestic parasites and rodents that can spread the disease.

Although there are antibiotics that can treat this disease, it can still be deadly if not caught early. Antolin finds this particular pathogen fascinating because there is still so much we don’t know about it in modern time. With this said, the bubonic plague is still on the public health sectors radar as a potential threat.


  • David Randall, author of Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague
  • Michael Antolin, professor and department chair of biology at Colorado State University

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