Friday, March 20, 2009

And In-flew-Enza

The photo of the flu ward at Walter Reed Army Hospital inspired me to learn about the Great Influenza of 1918. Too often, the Capital is isolated from the rest of the country; it’s a place that hears the problems of the nation but doesn’t necessarily see them. The influenza pandemic in 1918 is a great example of how the city shared in a national tragedy. As the worst pandemic in history, the Great Influenza or Spanish Flu infected 20-40% of the World’s population, causing 50 million causalities. With sudden symptoms of aches and fever, pneumonia, and hemorrhaging of the lungs and intestines, the flu managed to kill 675,000 Americans in a mere 6 months.

Though the virus appeared in the United States in March 1918, the first casualty in the District was on September 21st; the victim had been a railroad brakeman who had been exposed to it in New York. From his DC headquarters, Surgeon General Rupert Blue was just beginning to recognize that the flu outbreak was about to wreak havoc. Just one day later 65 cases were reported at Camp Humphrey (now Fort Belvoir, near Arlington Cemetery). That day the government issued its first warning to the public, stating among other things to:
“-Avoid needless crowding
-Smother your coughes and sneezes
-Food will win the War—Help by choosing and chewing your food well
-Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves.”

By September 26th Senator John Weeks of Massachusetts called for a resolution appropriating a hefty one million dollars toward combating the outbreak. The resolution sped through the Senate and House in two hours, passing without a single dissent. The United States Public Health Service (now the NIH) set up an emergency hospital in the District that could accommodate 500 patients, and the Surgeon General of the Navy made available 40 medical officers. At Walter Reed the mortality rate of flu victims with pneumonia reached 52%. For 1918, the mortality rate in DC reached 23.6 deaths out of 1000 dying compared to 16.8 in 1917. To give a comparison, the average mortality rate in 1918 for the 46 largest US cities was 19.6.

In a short time coffins became a scarcity. At one point, DC Health Commissioner Louis Brownlow seized two railcars full of coffins bound for Pittsburgh, another hard-hit city. Local funeral home owner Bill Sardo later recalled that “from the moment I got up in the morning to when I went to bed at night, I felt a constant sense of fear. We wore gauze masks. We were afraid to kiss each other, to eat with each other, to have contact of any kind. We had no family life, no church life, no community life. Fear tore people apart.”

Though the USPHS, the Navy and Army worked diligently to create vaccines that had moderate success, people were generally at the mercy of virus and could only wait it out. Over the next few months the emergency hospital in DC reduced its size to one hundred beds and by March 1919 it had dispensed operations all together. The flu had disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived, having left its mark of fear across the nation.

Sources: John M. Barry, The Great Influenza (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004).

Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic, Second Edition (NewYork: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

“Death Rate Increase in 1918,” New York Times, January 6, 1918.

United States Department of Health and Human Services,
The Great Pandemic (available online: 3/20/09).

Picture Source:
"Walter Reed Hospital flu ward", Harris & Ewing glass negative, c. 1919 (available online: 3/20/09). *Shorpy is a fantastic hi-def vintage photography website, with many collections from DC.

1 comment:

  1. In the period between September through March,DC lost 3,169 of its residents to influenza. This number excludes servicemen and women at surrounding bases.