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Peking 1918: Panic, Pneumonic Plague & Masks

Posted: June 30th, 2022 | No Comments »

In the spring of 1918 a pneumonic plague epidemic swept through nothern China and close to Peking. Few cases were reported in the city itself though new arrivals from the countryside were eyed warily and the Legation Quarter prepared to slam shut its gates in a quarantine from the rest of the city. Quarantine and disinfection camps were established city-wide and railway stations temporarily closed to limit spread. Still there were some cases. Controls on foreigners were considerably less than on Chinese peasants arriving in the city and so three Russian travelers who lodged at the Hotel des Wagons-Lits in the Legation Quarter without inspection died. Alexis Leger (also known as the poet Saint-John Perse) was a secretary at the French Legation at the time and wrote:

‘As a matter of fact, this pulmonary plague, which is the most serious (he reports that the recovery was so low that some men sat with loaded revolvers ready to kill themselves if infected and avoid the horrors of the disease), is also the easiest to avoid individually. B y simply wearing a mask you can avoid catching it even in a particularly infected area. Real danger exists only for the teeming masses plodding along the roads.’ April 9, 1918, Peking…

And here is a Japanese soldier on duty at the Japanese Legation in Peking wearing a mask…

Messrs. S. J. Bentines & Co., Peking


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