Public Health and Infectious Diseases in the Pacific Basin’s “Sanitary Sieve,” 1860-1914

Christopher Kindell

The Division of the Social Sciences Research Grant — made possible by the Orin Williams Fund — supported my archival research trip to Honolulu, Hawaii during the summer months of 2016. The majority of my time was split between the Hawaii State Archives, the Bishop Museum, and the Hawaiian Mission Houses. Indeed, Honolulu was a thought-provoking location for delving into Hawaii's historic past, including the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the U.S. government aided in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and later annexed the Hawaiian Islands. I initially sought to explore the history of transpacific communication networks among public health officials in California, Hawaii, and New South Wales, but the rich and largely unexplored history of public health and infectious diseases in Honolulu has allowed for a more focused, single-city project.  

My dissertation now investigates Honolulu’s varied public health responses to the introduction and dissemination of infectious diseases between the California Gold Rush of the 1850s and the opening of the Panama Canal in the 1910s. It was within this half-century that the arrival of oceangoing steamships accelerated the rate of transpacific trade, travel, and migration, thereby increasing the international spread and urban prevalence of diseases like syphilis, smallpox, cholera, and bubonic plague. Accordingly, health officials in Honolulu came to view the Pacific as a self-contained petri dish where diseases were generated and conveyed within an expanding nexus of seaports. In addition to its established role as a coaling station and agricultural entrepôt, Honolulu thus assumed a new and often self-proclaimed responsibility as the Pacific’s “sanitary sieve”. The city itself — its harbor, natural environment, businesses, and residential buildings — transformed into an intricate disease-screening depot for transpacific commerce and migration as countless vessels from the Americas, East Asia, and Oceania crisscrossed one-third of the Earth’s surface. Safeguarding both the Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Basin from infectious diseases became Honolulu’s chief public health responsibility. As a matter of course, municipal health officials sought to modernize the cultural practices of urban denizens, sanitize the city’s urban wildlife, and reshape the physical infrastructure of Honolulu.

Upon delving into the archives, I uncovered an array of documents that detailed many of the reform projects adopted by public health officials, including Board of Health correspondence, disease maps, supreme court cases, petitions, legislative reports, and newspapers. With regard to cultural practices, health officials registered and regulated Hawaiian and Japanese prostitutes to combat venereal diseases; intensified quarantine protocols and monitored Chinese laundry customs to mitigate the intensity of smallpox; and micromanaged the cultivation of taro and the production of poi in response to cholera outbreaks. In terms of the built and natural urban environment, health officials oversaw the construction on Honolulu's sewer lines as they targeted typhoid and cholera; supervised the erection of almost every turn-of-the-century edifice to ensure that "sanitary" living conditions were maintained; and orchestrated widespread rodent and mosquito eradication campaigns to tackle the spread of plague and protect against the introduction of yellow fever.

Christopher Kindell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History.