When Campus Was Plagued


The Berkeleyan story (March 29-April 11) on the movie "Outbreak" asks "Could It Happen Here?"

It has happened here--in fiction at least. Two famous writers associated with the university published books about the events, and aftermath, of unstoppable new diseases sweeping around the world.

In "The Scarlet Plague" Jack London--who grew up in Oakland and briefly attended Cal as a student--used the Berkeley campus as the backdrop for his story of a young professor of literature who was one of the few survivors of a sudden plague. In the early part of the book many survivors associated with the university retreat with their families to the campus and, in a climatic scene with Oakland and San Francisco burning in the background, barricade themselves in the chemistry building and hold off groups of looters.

In his novel "Earth Abides" English professor George Stewart used a similar story and setting. His protagonist is a young geology graduate student who is isolated in the Sierras when the plague strikes and returns to Berkeley to find the town and campus physically intact, but virtually devoid of human life (a bit like spring break).

London and Stewart both focus on the theme of defining and preserving civilization in the aftermath of natural disaster. Their protagonists gather small groups of survivors and try to recreate society in an almost completely depopulated world.

Both books are highlights of a rich array of literature set on the Berkeley campus over the past century.

Steven Finacom

Planning Analyst

Physical and Environmental Planning


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