Bubonic Plague's Continuation Into the 20th Century

How the Egyptian Gazette Can Help Paint A Clearer Picture

While encoding my 1906-10-17 issue of the Egyptian Gazette, I was enthralled by mention of the bubonic plague in the “Local and General” section. The bubonic plague is a bacterial infection commonly carried by fleas and rats that causes fever, swollen lymph nodes, and even gangrene in the extremities, hence its nickname the “Black death”. I was familiar with this plague’s epidemic in Western Europe during the 14th century, but I had not realized that the plague continued to infect humans. Upon further research, I learned that there was a second epidemic of the bubonic plague in India throughout the 19th and 20th centuries for about five decades. Cases of bubonic plague persist around the world still even to this day, which I found particularly intriguing; it completely dumbfounded my previous notions that the plague no longer existed. Specifically in the context of Egypt in the early 20th century, I learned from past student blog posts that the plague was most prevalent in 1904, followed by an immediate, drastic decrease in 1905. In fact, there was a bulletin posted in October of 1905 that read “NO MORE PLAGUE.” Within just two years, the total cases dropped to zero, which I found compelling considering the plague’s reputation of spreading viscously.

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My issue’s report of the plague’s reappearance further complicates the issue of the bubonic plague in early 20th century Egypt; what allowed the plague to dwindle down and reappear? What specific conditions fostered an epidemic in India but not in Egypt when they were dealing with the same disease? These are questions that microhistorical data in the Egyptian Gazette can help answer. I also think it’s important to note that the afflicted person in this bulletin was a waiter, meaning he had ample opportunity to transmit the disease to countless other people. A later issue in the same month of that year revealed that there had been 500 cases from January to October in 1906, which is a stark increase from the supposedly zero cases in 1905; this all leads me to conclude that this case of plague was not rare for the time, and that the plague reappeared with a vigor. I wonder, too, if there was any significance to the newspaper mentioning that he was Greek; was this their way of racializing the disease? Upon looking futher into the Egyptian Gazette, I discovered a trend in reporting individual cases of the bubonic plague with little to no detail in the “Local and General” section. In issues like this one, the bulletins were only concerned with sharing the numbers of cases and the deaths. (In this issue, the “Bubonic Plague” bulletin is in the third column.) Rarely did they report the occupation or ethnicity of someone afflicted, which makes this particular bulletin all the more interesting and worthy of research.

McKenna Oakley
McKenna Oakley

The author, a student at Florida State University, was enrolled in the digital microhistory lab in fall 2022 and is a Creative Writing major.