Home > Incredible Past > The Horrors of the Manchurian Plague

The Horrors of the Manchurian Plague

When plague broke out in Manchuria in 1910 as a result of transmission from marmots to humans, it struck a region struggling with the introduction of Western medicine, as well as with the interactions of three different national powers: Chinese, Japanese, and Russian. This plague killed as many as 60,000 people in less than a year.

Bodies of plague dead held in storage awaiting scientific research

Bodies of plague dead held in storage awaiting scientific research

The makeshift hospital – really just three rooms in a converted temple courtyard – was packed with the infected. Within walls covered in blood and sputum, patients lying side-by-side on wooden platforms coughed and spluttered in the frigid air. If you weren’t sick when you were brought here – a fate that befell some unfortunate patients – you soon would be. At the time, this must have surely been the most horrific situation ever witnessed by the northeast Chinese region of Manchuria.

There was little comfort in these improvised hospitals for the sick – no running water, no gas, and little in the way of medical attention; all that was provided was the food and water needed to sustain the body – for the short duration before it inevitably expired. Of the many men, women and children who were admitted to these wards, virtually none would leave alive.

A suspected plague case is rounded up by workers dressed in protective clothing

A suspected plague case is rounded up by workers dressed in protective clothing

Such scenes were typical at the height of the Manchurian Plague, an epidemic that began in October 1910, and which by spring of the following year had claimed the lives of between 45,000 and 60,000 people. Of those who caught the disease, there were few, if any, survivors.
American doctors Strong and Teague perform an autopsy on a plague victim

American doctors Strong and Teague perform an autopsy on a plague victim

Bodies being taken to a cremation pit in Harbin

Bodies being taken to a cremation pit in Harbin

A medical team in protective clothing examine a man suspected of having the plague

A medical team in protective clothing examine a man suspected of having the plague

Medical workers put a plague victim into a coffin

Medical workers put a plague victim into a coffin

Chinese medical staff disinfect themselves after work

Chinese medical staff disinfect themselves after work

Over 1,400 bodies are burnt at the first large cremation of plague victims

Over 1,400 bodies are burnt at the first large cremation of plague victims

As the body count mounted, there were more corpses than could be disposed of efficiently. Some were left in makeshift coffins lying out in the thick encrusted snow; others were simply dumped into pits and blown up with explosives. During this early stage, cremation – not a practice traditionally accepted in China – was still avoided.

Males inmates at an institution for the homeles

Males inmates at an institution for the homeless

One of the reasons the plague was so devastating in Manchuria was that there was little in the way of infrastructure to deal with an outbreak of this severity and magnitude. There was a serious lack of medical knowledge regarding how to take care of – much less treat – the patients, and the authorities were similarly ignorant about how to safely dispose of the bodies of the dead.

Coffins stacked in Changchun

Coffins stacked in Changchun

A medical team takes blood from a man's ear to test for plague

A medical team takes blood from a man’s ear to test for plague

Dr. Young and Dr. Chai in a vaccine lab

Dr. Young and Dr. Chai in a vaccine lab

However, for Dr. Strong, performing autopsies in Manchuria didn’t simply involve cultural issues. “The examinations were sometimes performed under difficulties owing to the extreme cold,” Strong said. “The water in the buckets would sometimes freeze while the necropsy was being performed, and the blood formed icicles as it flowed upon and over the edges of the table.”

One significant lesson we can perhaps all take from the Manchurian Plague is that it pays to be cautious in our dealings with nature. The indigenous communities who hunted the marmot with care for centuries did not suffer rodent-spread epidemics like the ones that came later. It seems to be another example of the way not treating the environment and wildlife with respect can have serious, far-reaching consequences.

Courtesy: Yohani Kamarudin

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Categories: Incredible Past
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