Coronavirus – Spanish Flu

I am immersed in a new story celebrating three women of three successive generations. Two of these characters lived through the pandemic of their time, the Spanish Flu. Their flu was coupled with the devastating World War, with death from bullets and disease convulsing the country. Our COVID-19 has now coupled with the worldwide protests of the death of George Floyd and the injustices of centuries. How did my Door County, Wisconsin ancestors live with their chaos? How will we live with ours? Here I share my Door County findings.  

The Pandemic

No, not COVID-19, the pandemic in the world in the today of my writing, just three months old. No, this story covers the 1918-1919 influenza, popularly called the Spanish Flu, that raged in the world during and after the World War. I found health directives and opinion pieces that eerily mimic the news stories of 2020, but these were published  in the newspapers of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, (population 4,500) for Door County residents (approximately 19,000), beginning in the fall of 1918. 

These articles do not represent the science or history of the 1918 pandemic; they simply show us one small community’s reality during the pandemic. They remind me that Pandemic is Chaos, whether in 1918 or 2020. The encouraging news then was that they got through it by 1920. But is it reassuring or disturbing that they recommend the same precautions, no more, but no less? With that, it took three years to eradicate the influenza.  Will we have better interventions in 2020? Will we keep the death toll down? We don’t know.

If you read the very last paragraph of the very last article, (January, 1920)  you will glean the final wisdom of that generation’s three-year struggle, 100 years ago.

November 1918:  Sure Fire Cure for the Spanish Flu 

Like today, remedies aplenty spread throughout the land. Here’s a 1918 cure . . . Just don’t drink it. 

Door County Advocate 1918-11-15  The following remedy for the Spanish Influenza is sent to us by one of our subscribers, . . . who states that the following cure has saved many lives the city in which she resides:

  • Formula
  • Mutton suet, one-half pound
  • white vaseline, one small bottle
  • spirits turpentine, one-half cup
  •  kerosene, one-half cup
  • spirits of camphor, one-half cup
  • alcohol, one-half cup
  • spirits of ammonia, one- fourth cup.

Heat these ingredients in a pan and apply by dipping the mixture in the hot mixture and rubbing the patient’s chest, back, sides, spine and region of bronchial tubes and after rubbing thoroughly with this hot mixture, dip flannel cloth large enough to cover chest, in the hot solution, squeezing out all surplus fluid. Pin the hot saturated flannel over patient’s chest, next the body, letting the cloth reach from collar bones to stomach. Apply remedy morning, noon and night until patient is perfectly well. If weather is cold keep hot brick to patient’s feet. Swab the nose three times a day with equal parts menthol and white vaseline.

October, 1918: State Board of Health orders all churches, school and picture houses to close

Door County Advocate 1918-10-18 Page One, Column One
City Health Officer HC. Sibree Taking all Precautions to Prevent the Dreaded Disease From Getting a Stake Here 

Remember, in 1918 restaurants were few and existed for warfarers, food was grown and processed at home, churches were the prime gathering places.
But how familiar the rules!

In accordance with the State Board of Health (emphasis supplied), Health Officer H. C. Sibree on Saturday ordered all churches, school and picture houses to close until future notice.

The ruling was made by the state board of health in an effort to check Spanish influenza, the dreaded plague which is sweeping the state and country. The idea is to prevent all people from gathering into crowds, as the Flu or Seven Day Fever is contagious disease and the only way to check it is to stop the people from congregating. . .  Although the stores, saloons, and poolrooms were not closed the health officer requested merchants to request their customers not to congregate and ruled that there should he no one allowed to hang around a sa­loon or pool hall. It is due to the stringent way in which these rules were enforced by Mr. Sibree that no cases of the dread­ed disease have been reported in the city.  The penalty for failing to comply with the ruling is a fine of $200 and signs have been placed in public plac­es warning the public of this.

Wild Rumors. There have been many wild rumors floating around ever since this plague has been sweeping the country as to its origination. The favorite one is the tale about the 22 physicians at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station who were lined up against a wall and shot, they having been convicted of inoculating naval recruits with the germs of the flu in­ stead of typhoid fever preventative. Other versions differ as to the number of doctors shot but sailors home from the training station seem to know nothing about such an affair.

U.S. to Accuse China of Trying to Hack Vaccine Data 

. . . just one of the many headlines from the New York Times during the months of April and May, 2020. So far there’s been no line-up against a wall, but tariffs and threats are increasing. We wonder, will the suffering stop for the United States or China if we know whose fault it was?

Who is it that cares?

October 1918: United States Pubic Health Service says quarantine for influenza is impracticable

Door County Advocate 1918-10-18 [Same Day, Same Newspaper as above –  Page 4]

The United States Public Health Service (emphasis supplied) does not consider quarantine for influenza as practicable. Local boards of health have authority, if they deem it necessary, to adopt and enforce rules and regulations providing for the reporting of cases to the health officer and also providing for the quarantine of homes or other places where there are cases of influenza. Except in extraordinary cases where a severe epidemic seems to have gotten beyond control, we do not consider it necessary to close the schools. The teachers should be instructed to exclude from school all children who have influenza or a severe cold.  All absences from school on account of illness should be reported to the health officer promptly so that an investigation can be made to determine the nature of the ailment.

It sounds like perhaps the State Board of Health and the United States Board of Health might not have been on the same page. I’ve read that President Wilson never made a public statement about the 1918 pandemic. The administration wanted nothing to distract from the war effort. Our 2020 President made plenty of public statements about COVID-19. Perhaps silence has its benefits. 

December 1918: Green Bay lifts ban

Door County News 1918-12-05 — After a thorough trial the health department and city officials of Green Bay have come to the conclusion that closing of the schools, churches theaters and public places did not provide the protection that was expected. Instead a rigid quarantine of families whose members are ill with the disease is recommended. An ordinance has been passed making it a misdemeanor to break the quarantine and also for attending physicians not to report the cases under their care…

January 1919: School children examined regularly — Nurse hired

Door County News 1919-01-02 —  School Children Examined:  The school children of the public school are to be examined regularly to ascertain whether there are any symptoms of influenza, or a possibility of their being afflicted with the disease. The school board has engaged the services of a trained nurse to perform the service. If a pupil has a cold or is ill he or she will be sent home. This is an innovation introduced at the suggestion of Health Officer Proctor and is certainly a move in the right direction. With proper inspection there is every reason to believe that the influenza can be prevented from spreading even with the schools in session. 

Now, in June, 2020, we wonder if we could follow the 1919 model with nurses doing student exams. With our instant thermometers, our advanced medical knowledge? Can we go back to school in the Fall?

February, 1919: Influenza is wiped out — Quarantine measures effective

Door County Advocate 1919-02-28 — The Spanish influenza has about been stamped out in this city [Sturgeon Bay,] there being but one home under quarantine on the east side and one on the west side on Wednesday of the present week. Services of the special quarantine officer have been dispensed with, and the ban on large public gatherings removed. There have been no deaths from the disease during the past month in the city, the last one being on January 19th. Health Officer T. C. Proctor be­lieves the disease has been stamped out due largely to the strict quarantine regulations that have been enforced during the past month. 

Ah, it’s all over, let’s go party! We are familiar with this declaration. But like our country in 2020, the all-clear was a moving target, and the town next door might not be so lucky. As the following August, 1919 article suggests “there seems to be a difference of opinion on the subject” [of recurrence of the epidemic.] Yes indeed, we say in 2020.

March, 1919: Worse than War

I quote this article in full because its questions and comments are so similar to our current questions. We in 2020 have so many of the same ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ issues, and so many people and institutions to blame. But we didn’t have the World War casualties, and our pandemic doesn’t target the young. Despite the sadness of losing our old from our 2020 invader, we old have lived long.

But now we face the killer of the young that was there in 1919 and  remains in 2020, and thrived through centuries: the racial injustice that we have all failed to stamp out. Now we protest, now we have a chance, now please may we obtain herd immunity from this most persistent plague.

Door County Advocate 1919-03-14  — The world war is estimated to have killed 7,534,000 individuals. The world influenza epidemic is estimated to have killed 6,000,000 individuals. There is something remarkable. The horrors of war have been upon every tongue, the influenza, except to those families that were stricken, has been almost as much a subject of jest as of fear. [Emphasis supplied] The war has been blatant, spectacular advertised on every hand as a horror. The plague has been silent, unseen news of it has been suppressed. When we read the daily casualty lists from France, we have said: “Who is responsible? Who turned loose this horror upon the world?”  But as regards the black plague of influenza there have been no casualty lists. The deaths have been reported singly, day by day. When the dread hand of contagion has taken away a life, only the immediate family as a rule, has known. Yet, as some one is responsible for the war, so is some one responsible for the plague that took almost as many lives. 

As regards the nations of Europe, they could scarcely have been isolated from the plague of sword and shell, nor could they have been isolated from the plague of fever. But with America, in both cases, it was different. As America remained for many years immune, at peace while Europe fought, so America remained for long years immune from the pestilence that was filling grave for grave in Europe, in competition with the death of the battlefield. As the immunity of the sea kept America out of the fighting, so it kept America free of the epidemic until it had devastated Europe. 

While the pestilence of blood letting could not end without American intervention, there was no need that America should contribute the death of thousands to the plague of disease. In time of peace the health officers could hardly have kept the Influenza infection from crossing to our shores. But in time of war, how different! Then the military organization has the situation in its grasp. No one comes, no one goes without permission. Every soul returning to this country from the field of battle and of disease could have been landed in strict quarantine and kept there until all fear of safety for the public had been passed.

Had the government health authorities been alive to the situation [emphasis supplied] they could probably have prevented the entrance of influenza into this country. As it was, the dread disease was here and beyond control before anyone realized the situation. As a result 375,000 persons died of it in continental United States within sixty days [emphasis supplied]. This is by esti­mate of the United States census bureau.

Between September 8 and November 9, [1918] the actual deaths in forty six American cities with a com­bined population of 23,000,000 were 82,000. This was against a normal death rate of 4,000. The excess of 78,000 was therefore charged to the epidemic. Carrying, this operation to the population of continental United States gives a total of 375,006 in two short months. How many Individuals were stricken, but recovered, no one knows. But the total must have been well up toward a third of the entire population.

An especially terrible aspect of the influenza death lists, as of the army death lists, is the fact that those who have been taken away are from among the flower of young life. Of the 376,000 enumerated, less than two per cent were among persons of more than fifty-five years of age. Eighty per cent were under forty years of age, sixty per cent were under thirty-five. The average death rate was thirty- three years, against an average rate in normal times of fifty-five or sixty years. In other words the influenza, just as the battle field, took those persons who, in the normal course of events, were least likely to be laid low. 

August, 1919: $5,000,000 bill introduced to Congress — Investigate influenza epidemic 

Door County Advocate 1919-08-08 — A bill has been introduced in congress appropriating $5,000,000 for the investigation of the influenza ep­idemic: its cause, methods of prevention and the cure. There has been considerable discussion as to the probable recurrence of the epidemic next winter and there seems to be a difference of opinion on the subject [emphasis supplied]. It is quite certain that unless extra precautions are taken the disease will before the winter sets in break anew. . . the government can well afford to appropriate money for this purpose.

September 1919: Will the flu return?

Door County Advocate 1919-09-19 — (Authoritative Statement Issued by the U.S. Public Health Service.) Probably, but by no means certainly, there will be a recurrence of the influenza epidemic this year. Indications are that should it occur, it will not be as severe as the pandemic of the previous winter. City officials, state and city boards of health, should be prepared in the event of a recurrence. The fact that a previous attack brings immunity in a certain percentage of cases should allay fear on the part of those afflicted in the previous epidemic. Influenza is spread by direct and indirect contact. It is not yet certain that the germ has been isolated, or discovered, and. as a consequence there as yet no positive preventative, except the enforcement of rigid rules of sanitation and the avoidance of personal contact [emphasis supplied].

It will be observed that no mention has been made of a cure, or specific. (sic)  One thing is certain, that the disease is communicable from person to person. Moreover, judging from experience in other diseases, it is probable that the germ, whatever its nature, is carried about not only by those who are ill with influenza but by persons who may be entirely well. Everything which increases personal contact, therefore, should be regarded as a factor in spreading influenza.

Though the use of suitably constructed masks will reduce the interchange of respiratory germs through inhalation, there are many other paths by which such germs are transmitted from person to person. Soiled hands, common drinking cups improperly cleaned eating and drinking utensils in restaurants, soda fountains, etc., roller towels, infected food — these are only a few of the common vehicles of germ transmission. The use of face masks appears to make people neglect these other paths of infection, and so the use of face masks has not been attended with the success predicted for them.

January, 1920: Influenza epidemic raging in large cities

Door County News 1920-01-2 — Public Must Guard Against Disease. In view of the fact that influenza appears to be epidemic in many of the larger cities, there having been eight deaths reported in Milwaukee in one day the past week, the State Board of Health has taken steps to check the spread of the malady by an appeal to the public thru the several health departments of the various cities.

The report from various cities where there are now epidemics of influenza shows that the pneumonia common in the “flu” last winter is to a great extent absent. However, this uncomplicated influenza may at any minute take on the type of last winter, therefore the people are warned not to use every precaution to keep from getting the “flu” and if you do get it in spite of your precautions you should immediately isolate yourself, go to bed and keep warm and if the symptoms are in the least alarming, call your physician. Report your case to the health department within twenty-four hours whether you have a doctor or not. The quarantine does not work a hardship in any way. The bread earners are allowed to go about their work as usual and there will be no after fumigation.

Look with suspicion on all coughers and sneezers. [emphasis supplied] Cover your cough or sneeze with your handkerchief and insist on others treating you with the same courtesy.  If you have a cough of any kind, stay away from public gatherings. If we are careful from the beginning it will not be necessary to close picture shows, schools and churches!  IT IS UP TO YOU.


and the next article?

We will explore the corn field, with tomato yields and peach treats reviewed in depth

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TALLAK! immigrant tells the story of the everyday lives of 18th and 19th century immigrants. They loved their home country, but didn’t have much time to mourn that loss, as they worked and loved and lived in the country they had chosen to begin their new lives. 

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