Esther Pohl: The Doctor That Saved Portland From The Plague

In 1907, when women still couldn’t  vote in the United  States, Esther Pohl was  unanimously elected to serve as head of the Portland, Oregon Public Health Council. Quite a fortunately –  shortly after, the Bubonic Plague came to town – and shortly 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 largest cities in the United States.

A few months after being appointed, the disease began to spread from San Francisco to other West Coast cities. Because it began to erupt in the United States following Chinese shipping, the common 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 closure of Chinatown, 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 the city was plagued. 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 ports in the West Coast cities.

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 media shockingly reported on the filth and dirt in the harbor. Piles of trash were 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 in order to fight the Plague, the city needed to be cleaned up, an efficient waste system needed to be created, and finally – the rat population needed to be exterminated.

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The Public Health Council agreed, and gave her the green light to continue with her plan. Dr. Pohl, along with business owners in the city, set up a fund for urban cleanliness, with an emphasis on the port area. In addition, she 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 a reward to every city resident to bring a rat – alive or dead – to the municipal incinerator.

She stuck to her plan, even when opponents claimed that she was causing unnecessary panic and hysteria, and all that needed to be done is close Chinatown, like other cities. Dr. Pohl refused to add racial undertones to the outbreak, and insisted that only cleaning the city will prevent the spread of the disease.

Eventually, these measures were successful. In December, Portland became the only city in the West Cost without any known plague causes (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 greatly to the status of female doctors, and to the advancement of women’s medical fields. She served as the organization’s president between 1932-1933. She passed away in 1967 in Oregon.

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