The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 | The Invisible Enemy
When the epidemic had run its course, doctors could look back over the situation and realize that by the second week in September three sets of symptoms seemed to be evident: (1) In the first group the disease began mildly and the patients felt as though they would be better in a couple of days; a day or two later there was a rise in temperature followed by the onset of pneumonia, then death. (2) In this group the disease began somewhat severe. It was followed by pulmonary complications, then recovery. (3) The third type began as extremely severe. Breathing became very difficult, cyanosis set in. At Devens the lungs of 18-year-olds were filling with fluid; they were drowning, their faces blue from lack of oxygen. In this type, death followed in 36 to 48 hours.
There was much contact between the military and civilian populations, and it was only a matter of days before the invisible enemy began its assault on Boston’s residents. Women who worked at the military installations became the first civilian victims. On September 11, the Globe carried on its back pages one of the first stories about the situation. “Catherine Callahan,” it read, “overtaxed by her work for our soldiers, died today.” But the obituary went on to say that her sister Mary, 19, was also in the hospital with pneumonia — and so was her mother!
Civilian doctors were not required by law to report influenza cases to public officials, so how fast the contagion was spreading could only be guessed. Boston City Health Commissioner William C. Woodward was anxious, but he refused to convey his anxiety to the public. He issued a cool statement warning people that at the first sign of a cold they should isolate themselves, get into bed, and take cold remedies.
On September 18, Woodward estimated that there were at least 3,000 flu cases in the city — 40 people had died in the past 24 hours. It was evident to doctors that despite the benefits of modern medicine, there was little they could do for the sick. Warm food, fresh air, and blankets were all the doctors could prescribe; there were no antibiotics.
Nothing could prevent the epidemic from running its course. In the morning Woodward noted as a sign of hope that not one schoolchild had yet fallen victim to the plague, but with “the grippe making headway in every neighborhood, rich or poor, there was nothing to be gained by denying its presence.”
Help was needed, The Public Health Service of Massachusetts telegraphed the national headquarters of the Red Cross for 15 additional nurses to be sent to Boston. By the evening of the 18th Woodward’s one comfort was gone: news of the first child to fall victim was on his desk. The city streets began to empty and grow quiet. Behind closed doors in houses and tenements everywhere were the raspy sound of coughing, the delirious voices of fever, and the whispered fears of the healthy. The flu moved from the back pages of the newspaper to page one, where it remained for weeks to come.
The October weather had turned the hills and fields surrounding Greenfield Massachusetts, from their deep summer green to the red-gold-green-brown tweed of autumn. Lydia Johnson’s family had done well by moving here. Her father was bringing home $42 a week, her mother worked as a laundress, and her sister Maud, 21, had landed a job in a machine shop.
Lydia, like many other children at the Main Street School, having heard that the Germans put ground glass into sugar, among other hair-raising tales, feared for her life if “they” won the war. But the danger that adults worried about was more immediate. The influenza epidemic was blazing across the state. Camp Devens was quarantined, and General Crowder had canceled the draft even though General Pershing needed more troops! And worse, everyone in town was getting sick.
The policemen had taken to wearing gauze masks, which Lydia thought looked rather funny. But when she came into the house one afternoon and found Maud at home, in bed in the middle of the afternoon, she realized that something extraordinary was happening. But before she could get close to Maud to find out lust what was going on, her brother Harry warned her in a stern voice to keep quiet and at a distance.
That night at dinner Lilla Johnson, 19, told the family that when the doctor called he’d said his nurse was down with the fever too. Maud’s fever rose that night, and another sister, Grace, 17, fell ill the next day. By the week’s end, Lilla and the girls’ father were also sick. But Maud’s influenza attack was the worst.
Mrs. Johnson made up a special bed away from the sick half of the family for her youngest child Lydia, and when she went to work it was Harry who took charge of the infirmary. Maud didn’t have the strength to eat. Grace and Lilla couldn’t keep food in their stomachs, so he fed each of his patients clear soup. Maud’s soaring temperature posed other problems; she was becoming delirious. Listening to her fevered babble was alarming for Harry, but even worse, he had to wrestle her back into bed when she’d jump up insisting she needed to go out to the garden.
In her lucid moments, Harry poured as much tea spiked with whiskey down her throat as he could. The grog kept her dull, and the calm gave Harry time to care for the others. Professionals and laymen caring for persons in Maud’s condition found the whiskey functioned as a pain-killing tranquilizer. Its effects were certainly more reliable than many of the homemade cures such as inhaling turpentine fumes, sniffing camphorated vaseline, or lying beneath poultices of garlic and onions. Whiskey was more effective even than the various vaccines than were widely distributed by doctors to cities and military hospitals.
In Boston, panic was barely kept in check during October 1918. By the 16th more than 3,700 people had died. Though Lieutenant Governor Calvin Coolidge had wired Washington and received more than 1,000 additional nurses and some of the money he’d asked for, doctors and nurses were still sadly needed. All month long the city, newspapers ran front-page appeals for healthy men and women to volunteer to work as nurses, bandage sewers, ambulance drivers, laundresses, pharmacists and messengers. Nurses would be paid $28 a week, nurse’s aides $15, and if they came to the city from a distance, their transportation fees would be reimbursed. Henry Endicott, chairman of the State Committee on Public Safety and Acting Chairman of the Emergency Public Health Committee, encouraged people “to step forward and show their patriotism.”
Officials preached that proper precautions by the public would help stamp out the disease. The State Public Health Department, like many agencies, published lists of dos and don’ts: kissing was officially frowned upon, and public sneezing, spitting, or coughing without covering one’s face were subject to fines.
So many teachers were out sick that after much debate among Boston’s civic leaders, the city was forced to close the schools. Other services were faltering too. More than 165 car men of the Boston Street Railway were sick, and those still on the job had difficulty keeping the trains on schedule. The sailing of ships was delayed. People were asked not use their phones except for emergency because more than 850 operators were out.