The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 | The Invisible Enemy
On August 28, eight more sailors with the same symptoms checked into the infirmary; on the 29th, 58 more. Twenty sick men a day was enough to be considered unusual, but doctors and nurses were too busy to ponder the peculiar circumstances: they were facing a calamity. By the end of the week the number of cases was averaging 150 a day, and a steady parade of ambulances carried the sick from the modest infirmary to the modern Chelsea Naval Hospital overlooking Boston Harbor, which had a l,236-bed capacity.The disease was not confined to the Navy. Thirty miles west of Boston was Camp Devens, where much of the Yankee Division had been trained. Most of the soldiers in that division were now in France beginning America’s first major offensive of the war, the St. Mihiel battle. The task at Devens now was to train the 12th Infantry, and when General McCain arrived at the camp on August 20, he announced that the 12th would be ready to go overseas in 14 weeks. “Range firing,” he said, “will be carried on at all hours of the day while it’s light enough to see the bull’s eye.”
What the general could not have known was that by the end of those 14 weeks 17,000 of his men would battle for their lives here; 800 would succumb, casualties in a war against an invisible enemy. And the losses to the 12th would be just a fraction of what was to come; the influenza pandemic of 1918 would the worst in modern history.
Camp Devens, built in 1917, was home 45,000 men, 5,000 of them living in tents; in the first week of September 1918 another 4,000 recruits arrived. When drill sergeants marched them past the camp’s 2,000-bed hospital, they unconsciously lowered their voices. Something very grave was happening in there. As one Army doctor later described the scene, “There was a continuous line of men coming in from the various barracks looking extremely ill. There were not enough nurses and the poor boys were putting themselves on cots, which overflowed out of the wards onto the porches.”
However, after touring Devens’ hospital with General McCain, Lieutenant Colonel McCormack, a division surgeon, insisted to the press. “There’s nothing to get fussed up over — flu’s flu.” But Dr. William Bryan, over at Receiving Ship, was more cautious in his remarks: “It’s not the fancy European kind, but it is not the old-fashioned grippe. It is sufficiently dissimilar to be a medically different trouble.”
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.”