From the Morning Oregonian, May 23, 1893: “City Physician Wheeler spent yesterday aboard the quarantined steamer Danube, fumigating her and vaccinating her passengers…No further symptoms of smallpox have been discovered on the ship, and an epidemic is not feared.”
How do you fumigate a boat with passengers still on it? In the previous day’s paper, Dr. Wheeler explained, “Steam is sometimes used, but for thorough penetration the chlorine is far superior. The hatches must be battened down and provisions enough put on deck to last one day.”
Standing on the banks of the Willamette, Portlanders—domestic- and foreign-born alike—peered out at the overcrowded ship, a “yellow flag of pestilence floating from her foremast.” Hundreds of Chinese men stared back, hoping to set foot on American soil.
The owners of the Danube complained, “It is costing us a whole lot of money to feed these people.” To which the good doctor replied, “Yes. But my duty is to protect the 90,000 people here…If I were to let them land they might spread smallpox over Eastern Oregon and the valley, and even to Salt Lake and Ogden; so that, altogether, I am probably protecting many hundred thousands of people.”
Despite being the city’s top health officer, Dr. Wheeler had had to wait for approval from the Portland board of health to quarantine the boat. The board consisted of the mayor, his chief of police, and a councilman—none of whom were trained physicians. By the time the board met, one passenger had died, the boat had docked, and a crew member had come ashore.
Wheeler called on the board to give him authority to act independently in future emergencies. The Oregonian thought this would be especially timely now, “as the summer weather, with its probability of contagious and infectious epidemics is upon us.”
By June 1, no other passengers had fallen ill, and the Danube was released from quarantine, allowing customs inspectors “to begin their task of examining the 503 Chinamen.” After seventeen days of questioning and court challenges, all passengers secured landing in Oregon.
The Danube’s captain admitted that the passenger who died had been ill, but claimed that he had been “pronounced free from contagious diseases” by competent physicians at the ship’s previous port. Dr. Wheeler responded to the captain’s statements: “As regards the dead Chinaman having smallpox, there is no necessity for argument. His was a developed case. I have had much experience with the disease and can easily detect the eruptions.”
Laboratory testing for viral diseases would not be available for another fifty years.
The ship’s captain told the Oregonian on June 17, “Before leaving we propose to find out whether the city of Portland cannot be compelled to pay the expenses incurred by my ship during her illegal detention in quarantine. Dr. Wheeler’s action has cost us something like $4000, and we are going to ascertain whether we cannot recover it.”
Throughout the crisis, the paper assured its readers that the actions of their public health officials were sound, reporting that “little apprehension is felt, even among the ignorant and timid, of a spread of this disgusting foreign disease.”
Jennifer Schuberth holds a PhD in Philosophy of Religion from the University of Chicago and was a Tin House Winter 2020 Workshop recipient. She has backgrounds in higher education, finance, and painting. Her work has appeared in Dusie Kollektiv, The Journal of Religion and Film, and the Oregonian. She lives in Portland with her partner and two sons, and recently completed her first novel about the financial panic of 1893.