"Three burial coolies"
The third pandemic of plague (in its bubonic and pneumonic clinical forms) struck the globe between 1894 and 1959. As Yersinia pestis spread from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and devastation, but also a vast visual archive. It was the first time that plague would reach and establish itself in all inhabited continents. But it was also the first time that any epidemic would be photographed. As plague spread from harbour to harbour, and amongst cities, towns and villages, so did photographs of the pandemic through reproductions in the daily and illustrated press. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, these photographic documents provided diverse perspectives on the pandemic, which, more often than not, were not simply different from region to region, but in fact conflicting within any single locus of infection. Moreover this photographic production came to establish a new field of vision, what we may call “epidemic photography” which continues to inform the way in which we see, depict and imagine epidemics and their social, economic, and political impact in the age of Global Health.
Plague struck the historical region of Manchuria (today China’s Northeast provinces) in October 1910, probably through the infection of one or more humans from a plague-carrying Siberian marmot (Marmota sibirica) also known as the tarbagan (or tarabagan). Plague took a pneumonic clinical form and became contagious in an airborne manner, spreading along the railway systems of the region, which was at the time controlled by the Chinese, Japanese and Russian empires. Dispute and conflict between different scientific and imperial agents regarding the origin and transmission pathway of the outbreak, as well as the optimal way to contain it, ensued. The epidemic ceased by April 1911 after having caused approximately 60,000 deaths. In April 1911 the First International Plague Conference convened in Mukden (Shenyang) to debate the epidemiological and public health aspects of the outbreak. During the conference and in subsequent research the connection between marmots and plague, originally suggested by Russian scientists in 1895, was further explored. The outbreak led, after the formation of the Republic of China (1912), to the constitution of the North Manchurian Plague Prevention Service led by Dr Wu Liande; the Service would continue to study plague until its dissolution (1931). Plague would strike Manchuria again in 1920-21 (again in pneumonic clinical form), with lesser outbreaks, such as the one in Tungliao (Tongliao) in 1928, where the disease took a bubonic form, also being of epidemiological importance. Whether the 1910-11 and 1920-21 outbreaks of plague in Manchuria were biologically speaking part of the third plague pandemic is debatable, as their origin appears to be unconnected to the source of the pandemic in the SW Chinese province of Yunnan. Historically, however, they were perceived at the time as part of the pandemic.