Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Devastation of 1918: Finding Pockets of Hope in the Great Flu Pandemic

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I will once again highly recommend John Barry’s book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History [So Far – LG]. It is fascinating. The flu pandemic of 1918 killed so many people that afterwards it simply wasn’t talked about much. When that many people die—young adults, for the most part—one result is that the population of orphans increases dramatically. I learned in the book, for example, that Mary McCarthy, a writer and memoirist (married at one time to Edmund Wilson), lost both her parents in the flu pandemic—and there were so many in the same situation that it was not notable.

The link takes you to secondhand hardbound editions selling for as little as $1. Highly recommended.

It was brought to mind by this article in Pacific Standard by Anna Maria Gillis:

On September 12, 1918, Dr. Royal S. Copeland put the entire Port of New York City under quarantine. As health commissioner, he needed a way to keep what looked to be a nasty influenza from infiltrating the city. During the previous five weeks, a few dozen sick passengers and sailors aboard the incoming Bergensfjord, Nieuw Amsterdam, and Rochambeau had been met by staff from the city’s health department and whisked into isolation. Although New York had a solid history on health surveillance and inspection, Copeland was not taking any chances.

But there were so many ways into America’s most populous city that perfect containment was impossible. Within weeks of the quarantine order, New York was clearly moving toward an epidemic. “On October 4, physicians reported 999 new influenza cases for the previous 24-hour period, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the epidemic to approximately 4,000,” says The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia, a project from the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. “Still, Copeland was sanguine about the situation. Putting these figures in perspective, he told the public that Massachusetts—a state with half the population of New York City—had 100,000 cases of influenza.”

Massachusetts was reeling. Although there had been cases of flu around the country the previous spring, the first serious cases were reported in Boston in August 1918. The city’s health commissioner, Dr. William C. Woodward, had closed the public schools, theaters, and dance halls; so many people were sick, makeshift hospitals had to be built to accommodate them. There was an acute shortage of civilian medical personnel because many doctors and nurses had been called up to serve in the war. Naval installations were crippled by sickness and death. To prevent the disease from spreading to the South, naval recruits from Massachusetts who would have gone to South Carolina’s Charleston Navy Yard for training were kept in place.

At Camp Devens, about 35 miles from Boston, the Army was preparing men for the fields of France, but in the fall of 1918, the young and the strong were dying without leaving America. To figure out what was felling its soldiers, the military called in its finest doctors—among them William Henry Welch, the great pathologist from Johns Hopkins, then in his late sixties, who donned an Army uniform to aid the Army surgeon general.

According to historian Alfred W. Crosby, what Welch and his fellow doctors saw in the Devens morgue was “bodies the color of slate.” They were so plentiful, “the eminent physicians had to step around and over them to get to the autopsy room.”

During his inspection, Welch looked into a cadaver’s chest and “saw the blue, swollen lungs of a victim of Spanish influenza for the first time. Cause of death? That at least was clear: what in a healthy man are the lightest parts of his body, the lungs, were in this cadaver two sacks filled with a thin, bloody, frothy fluid,” wrote Crosby in the 2003 edition of America’s Forgotten Pandemic. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2014 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Books, Medical, Science

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