The police powers wielded by public health authorities in times of crisis
have often produced unforeseen and devastating consequences: individuals needlessly
deprived of their liberty, families and communities disrupted, property destroyed.
Faced with scientific uncertainty and political pressure, even cautious and
well-intentioned health officials have implemented policies that have led
to widespread and unnecessary suffering.
James C. Mohr’s Plague and Fire offers
an object lesson in such dangers. In January of 1900, the Chinatown district
of Honolulu burned to the ground when a fire that health officials had deliberately
set to destroy a plague-infested building blazed out of control and, fanned
by sudden winds, spread to neighboring structures. Thousands of people fled
in terror and were subsequently quarantined in detention camps to prevent
further spread of the disease. How was it, Mohr asks in his account of the
events surrounding the burning, that the exigencies of protecting the public
health resulted in such a calamity?
Colgrove J. History. JAMA. 2005;293(18):2281–2285. doi:10.1001/jama.293.18.2282
Customize your JAMA Network experience by selecting one or more topics from the list below.