I became interested in the 1918 Pandemic while researching 13 local Quaker men who volunteered to work with civilian victims of World War I in France during that war. Eleven of the men were, or would become, Wilmington College graduates.
They served from six months to nearly two years and were called to France when it was determined by the American Red Cross (ARC) that there was need for assistance with French civilians – mostly rural peasants. They followed English Quakers who had been involved in this noncombatant work for nearly three years.
The name of the U.S. Quaker organization which — along with the English Friends received the Nobel Peace Prize — is American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
The 1918 Pandemic is also referred to as the Spanish Flu, even thought it did not originate in Spain.
From the Flu Trackers News and Information the following quote from a physician describes what was apparently a typical 1918 situation:
“This epidemic started about four weeks ago, and has developed so rapidly that the camp (military camp Devon, near Boston) is demoralized and all ordinary work is held up till it has passed … These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of … influenza, and when brought to the Hospital they very rapidly develop the viscous type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the colored men from the white. It is only a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate… We have been averaging about 100 deaths a day, and still keeping it up.”
One-hundred years ago the world was still reeling from the Spanish Flu, which is estimated to have claimed the lives of 20 to 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S.
I recently spent some time looking through the Wilmington Daily News (this preceded the WNJ) from 1917-1925 and found some very interesting articles and advertisements. The first reference to the Influenza was on September 17, 1918 and concerns 4,000 men at the Great Lakes, Ill. Naval Training Station. (The relationship between war and various diseases has a long and deadly history.)
The second article (9/23/1918) was titled “To Escape the Influenza You Must Not Kiss.” From the Ohio State Department of Health came the warning, “Common means of spreading the disease are careless spitting, sneezing and coughing, use of common cups, towels, handkerchiefs and any article which has been mouthed, and kissing.”
For the next few weeks there are numerous reports of deaths and locations hit by the disease – Pansy, Blanchester, Washington Court House — and much attention is given to local decisions such as the closing of schools, theaters and some stores and a curfew is instituted, “it was announced to-day, by Mayor Charles Ayres and Health Officer F.A. Peelle that the fire bell will be rung every evening at 7 o’clock, and all children 16 years of age and under must be at their homes. This will take effect today and all will be expected to comply with this order. This action is taken as another means of arresting the epidemic of Spanish influenza.
“The Buster brothers (local African American businessmen) closed for a few days due to the influenza saying it was their Patriotic Duty, but would open on Friday for the sale of oysters and fish. The Children’s Home is stricken with the virus with twenty children in bed.”
On 10/12/1918: “Wilmington today appealed to the State Health authorities for physicians and nurses to handle cases of sickness. Neither place has enough doctors to handle the epidemic. New Burlington and Port William, towns in Clinton County, have only one doctor each and they have become ill, leaving the communities without medical attention.”
A call for nurses was given by the Red Cross Committee on Influenza, and the Clinton Telephone Company advertised for operators or they may have to terminate service.
“Only five of the 20 operators who were victims of the influenza have improved sufficiently to return to work, and the company can only keep its Exchange open through the kindness of those ladies who volunteered their services. Girls or women, who will take places, now may be assured of permanent positions, for, after the epidemic has passed, they will still be needed.”
Because of the close relationship between WWI and the outbreak of the Influenza, Camp Sherman at Chillicothe merits special attention as it was a military camp constructed solely to serve the needs of World War I and virtually all local inductees took their early training at that site.
As early as 9/25 a report stated there were 3,000 new cases in army camps and five days later it was reported that six men were dead at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe. Two local men died at the camp and were returned to Wilmington for burial. One of the 13 local Quaker men from Wilmington working in France died and was buried in France.
Archivist Patricia Fife Medert at Ross County (Chillicothe) wrote an excellent book about The Great War chronicling its effect on the city and the camp.
During the 14 months of its existence, more than 100,000 men trained at Camp Sherman. Much like what has happened currently, the camp surgeon, even after 25 deaths had occurred, denied the presence of the disease, claiming that it was simply the flu and, subsequently, the camp was not quarantined. There was also the problem of medical assistance and materials for health workers.
In the end there were 1,177 personnel at the camp who contracted the disease and died. In the city of Chillicothe, 28 died, considered a small number even as a downtown theater was turned into a morgue.
Following the deadliest time of the disease, which lasted only a few weeks — late September to mid-November 1918 — ads appeared in the Daily News for avoiding the onset of the influenza. Most of them seem laughable now, but some of them had staying power and are still available.
Following is a list of: ways to destroy the germs – Smith’s dry cleaning; ward off influenza, grippe, pneumonia — Bulgarian Blood Tea; Groves Iron Tonic Syrup makes children as fat as pigs which prevents the grip; Gude’s Pepto-Mangan which strengthens the blood and may ward off influenza; chiropractics – best of any health method vis-à-vis influenza and pneumonia; Bromo Quinine which fortifies the system against colds, grip and influenza; use of Foley’s Honey and Tar may avoid influenza, la grippe and bronchitis; Musterole to guard against influenza, grippe and pneumonia; and finally, as a preventive to influenza, Vicks Vaporub — melt and inhale night and morning!
This “light” conclusion is in no way an effort to minimize the dangerous situation in which we, along with our country and world neighbors, find ourselves.
Just in the past week the coronavirus has invaded military ships and too many of our United States have failed to act to slow down this raging virus.
Like good patients, we must follow the directions of the scientists who know the most, and not lose hope.
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.