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Episode 38: Disease in the Kingdom with Dr. Jon Osorio

In 1848 an American naval frigate arrived in Hilo carrying a virus that would spell death for thousands of Hawaiians: measles. Hawaiian immune systems had never seen the diseases arriving with foreign ships, and they were unable to handle the onslaught. Smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis were some of the introduced diseases that caused plague after plague in the kingdom. Historian Samuel Kamakau estimated that the single epidemic that began in 1848 with the measles killed one third of the population. He wrote, “The dead fell like dried kukui twigs tossed down by the wind.”

Even illnesses that weren’t fatal could leave devastating effects—gonorrhea, for example, caused sterility. The ali‘i succumbed themselves and surviving monarchs did what they could for the people: Queen Emma founded Queen’s Hospital, Queen Kapi‘olani founded what would become Kapi‘olani Hospital. In the midst of the devastation, says UH M?noa professor Jon Osorio, things changed for the land, too.

"The k?naka who had historically tended the land—as maka‘?inana working on the land, as konohiki directing that labor and work, as ali‘i and ali‘i nui who fed off the land and gave back to the land and to the people their own mana and their own spiritual and political leadership—as all of these people died, increasing amounts of land were left open, wasteland untended.”

researcher, writter, and narrator of Aloha Aina. She is currently an editor at Hawai‘i’s largest magazine, Hana Hou!, where she has written and edited numerous award-winning articles about Hawai‘i. She was the founding editor of Honolulu Weekly. She holds a BA in Pacific history and journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and a JD from Stanford Law School.
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