A Russian caption for this photograph reads: “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, prior to the unspeakable evil of Unit 731, 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.
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.
The Manchurian Plague was the greatest outbreak of pneumonic plague since the Black Death swept through Europe in the 1300s. However, in the earlier epidemic, both the bubonic and pneumonic plague were responsible, whereas in Manchuria only the latter was to blame.
The coffins of plague victims being doused in kerosene prior to cremation.
Although caused by the same bacterium, pneumonic plague is actually both rarer and more virulent than bubonic plague. It’s basically an extreme form of lung infection, and unless its symptoms are recognized within 24 hours, even today there is no known cure. Pneumonic plague can be deadly in any circumstances, but the outbreak in Manchuria was the most devastating epidemic of the disease ever recorded.
Bodies being taken to a cremation pit in Harbin
Although the exact origins of the Manchurian Plague are something of a mystery, blame is most commonly placed on the marmot, the small, furry animal believed to have carried the fatal disease.
A medical team in protective clothing examine a man suspected of having the plague.
Prior to 1911, marmots had been hunted by indigenous Mongolian and other nomadic tribesman, who followed ancient codes in their pursuit of the cat-sized rodents. Sickly-looking marmots, for example, were to be strictly avoided, even if it meant moving the entire camp away from an area where the animals were spotted.
Workers inspect a crematory
Then, in 1911, a combination of increased demand for marmot skins in the west and the relaxation of Chinese immigration restrictions into Manchuria meant that there was a sudden influx of inexperienced fur trappers into the region.
Medical workers put a plague victim into a coffin.
These new Chinese hunters did not follow the customs of the indigenous tribes and took marmots irrespective of the condition in which the animals were found. It wasn’t long before the trappers began to contract the plague from the rodents, and the disease was quick to spread.
Chinese medical staff disinfect themselves after work.
Once the plague had infected the marmot hunters, it spread throughout Manchuria via its newly built railway lines. The trains crowded people together, allowing the airborne disease to be easily transmitted and then ‘disembark’ with the infected passengers. Once a person caught the plague, death came quickly, sometimes within a couple of days.
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. This, however, would soon change.
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.
An inspection tour finds a man suspected of being infected with plague.
By January 1911, the number of corpses lying frozen and unburied had surpassed the 2,000 mark in the Manchurian city of Harbin alone. The government was thus forced to turn to cremation as a method of disposal. This was done by filling a pit with human and animal victims of the disease, throwing in some wood, dousing the whole grisly pile with a combustible liquid, and then setting it ablaze.
A foreign doctor, Dr. Young, works in the vaccine lab.
Unfortunately, the giant cremations were more a public show of dealing with the situation by the authorities than an effective measure to actually halt the plague. More useful to this end, in fact, were the rigorous quarantine measures put in place. Sometimes, entire towns were surrounded by military blockades, while other municipalities were divided up into sections between which travel was strictly controlled.
A plague-infected house is burnt to the ground.
Infected people were rounded up and confined to hospitals or other segregated units, with freight train carriages often used for this purpose. The methods used isolate those infected – or suspected of being infected – could be harsh, but in the end it proved to be the only way to stop the spread of the contagion.
A dog investigates coffins outside a hospital.
Because of the lack of local expertise, an American doctor, Richard Strong, was brought in to head research into the plague epidemic and find a way to curtail the spread of the deadly disease.
A foreign doctor, Dr. Asplan, receives plague reports.
Dr. Strong instituted several measures, including the requirement that all medical personal wear masks, goggles and gowns. He also performed autopsies – at the time strictly taboo in Chinese culture – despite the fierce opposition they provoked.
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.”
Coffins stacked in Changchun
During his time in Manchuria, Dr. Strong greatly contributed to medical knowledge about the pneumonic plague. As for the disease, it had begun to decline in the region by February 1911, largely through the quarantine measures that were enforced, and possibly also because the weather started to improve.
A Japanese-trained disinfection squad
The plague epidemic had a lasting impact not only on Manchuria, but also on China as a whole. For one, the country was forced to update its medical practices and give more consideration to public health. Autopsies and cremations began to be practiced, for example.
A medical team takes blood from a man's ear to test for plague.
Aside from this, China, Russia and Japan all controlled sections of Manchuria at the time, and it’s been suggested that the plague affected the geopolitics of the region leading up to World War Two.
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.