Esther Pohl: The Doctor That Saved Portland From Bubonic Plague

In 1907, when women still weren’t allowed to vote in the United States, Esther Pohl was unanimously elected to serve as head of the Portland, Oregon Public Health Council. Portland was lucky:  shortly after, the Bubonic Plague came to town. Soon after that, Dr. Pohl turned Portland into the only city on the West Coast that didn’t have any deaths from the plague.

Dr. Pohl was born in 1869 and finished her medical training in 1894. She was the second woman in Oregon to finish medical school and the first woman to practice medicine.
Pohl decided to specialize in women’s health, and not long after, it was common to see her riding her bicycle throughout Portland.

She was accepted to the Public Health Council in 1905. She made history when she was elected to lead it in 1907 and became the first woman in charge of public health in one of the United States’ largest cities.

A few months after being appointed, the disease spread from San Francisco to other West Coast cities. Because it began to erupt in the United States following Chinese shipping, the standard American response was to impose closures on Chinese neighborhoods until anger subsided.

A few years earlier, during the outbreak in Honolulu, the authorities imposed a strict Chinatown closure. But when the disease kept spreading, the authorities decided to burn the buildings. In 1907, when the virus started spreading in San Francisco, the city took a similar approach, shutting down Chinatown and, at the same time threatening to sue anyone claiming that there was a plague raging. Eventually, 122 people died of the Plague in San Francisco.

Chinatown in Honolulu under Plague closure in the early 20th century
Chinatown in Honolulu under Plague closure in the early 20th century

Dr. Pohl refused to take similar measures. As a doctor, she knew that the disease was passed through rats and not through humans, and therefore closures wouldn’t help. She quickly realized that the problem wasn’t the shipments from China but the filth in the West Coast cities’ ports.

So, unlike all the other West Coast cities, Dr. Paul’s first step was to invite the city’s media to tour the harbor with her, and it worked. In the following days, the press broke the shocking news of the port’s filth and dirt. There were piles of trash thrown from ships, an overflowing sewage system, scrap warehouses, and more. “A public health disaster,” the headlines announced – just as Dr. Pohl hoped.

A few days later, against the backdrop of the public outcry, Pohl summoned the Public Health Council and presented her findings. She explained that to fight the Plague, the city needed to clean up the city, create an efficient waste system, and exterminate the rat population.

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The Public Health Council agreed and gave her the green light to continue with her plan. Along with business owners in the city, Dr. Pohl set up a fund for urban cleanliness, with an emphasis on the port area. She also recruited one of the leading rat hunters in the United States, who had previously helped exterminate rats in New York and Chicago. And for the final stage, she offered every city resident a reward to bring a rat – alive or dead – to the municipal incinerator.

Even when opponents claimed that she was causing unnecessary panic and hysteria, she stuck to her plan, and all that they needed to do is close Chinatown, like other cities. Dr. Pohl refused to add racial undertones to the outbreak and insisted that only cleaning the city would prevent the disease’s spread.

Eventually, these measures were successful. In December, Portland became the only city in the West Cost without any known plague cases (and probably one of the cleanest).

Dr. Pohl’s success wasn’t her only contribution to the public. In addition to her medical activities, Dr. Pohl was also a prominent Oregon suffragist. She was also one of the founders of the Medical Women’s International Association, an organization that contributed significantly to the status of female doctors and the advancement of women’s medical fields. She served as the organization’s president between 1932-1933 and passed away in 1967 in Oregon.

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