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The Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918: Uncle Sam wants you, not your flu PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, September 24, 2013 12:00 AM


Staff Writer

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One of the world’s deadliest pandemics was little known or reported on almost 100 years ago. The Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918 spread worldwide and killed 20-40 million people, 600,000 people in the United States alone. More people of the flu than during World War I, 16 million. More people died in the approximate one-year outbreak of influenza than died in the four years (1347-1351) of the bubonic plague. Twenty-five percent of the United States population were effected and life expectancy dropped by 12 years.

So why was the 1918 flu pandemic reported on so seldom? The war was at its height and censorship was heavily applied to most countries. However, Spain, which chose to stay out of the war, didn’t censor information that was sent overseas. A cable sent from Spain to London stated, “A Strange Form of Disease of Epidemic Character has appeared in Madrid. Mild Nature, no deaths being reported.” Thus the new disease was called Spanish flu or Spanish lady, being the first country to officially recognize it.

The first wave of the disease occurred from March 1918 to August. While no one knows how it officially started, the first cases were reported in March 1918 at an Army camp at Fort Riley Kansas, where soldiers were in training. An outbreak started in Europe when these soldiers went overseas. An outbreak started in April on a ship carrying soldiers from the U.S. 15th Calvary. It rapidly spread to the French soldiers, then the British and even to the enemy, the Germans.

It would eventually spread to North Africa, India, Japan, China, Phillipines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama Canal, Russia, Hawaii, New Zealand and even remote Seward Peninsula of Alaska. The Italians called it sandfly fever; Franch — purlent bronchitis or the grippe; German — lightning catarrh or Flanders fever; and Japan — wrestlers fever.

First reports were misleading as evidenced from a letter from a local soldier, W. J. Mowery to his brother, Eugene Mowery of Fort Wayne:

Somewhere in France, June 9, 1918.

“Will try to scribble a line or two in bed. It’s a good stunt if I can do so without spilling the ink, so here goes. I have been confined to quarters for two days with that new malady coming from Spain, called Spanish fever, and it is similar to la grippe, is very disagreeable, never fatal and seldom lasts over three days; so no doubt I will be on the job again tomorrow.”

The second and most lethal of the disease began only weeks after the first wave, lasting until mid-November. Having mutated into a more deadlier form, it quickly took the life of the young and healthy first. Modern research, using the virus taken from bodies from the frozen dead, specifically those on the Seward Peninsula of Alaska, concluded the virus killed through a cytokine storm (overreaction of the body’s immune system). By mid-summer influenza was striking civilians in Copenhagan, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway.

The Commonwealth Pier in Boston, launching pad for troops shipped overseas, reported flu cases of the second wave Aug. 27. The public ignored warnings from state health officials and continued with parades and war efforts supporting the troops, further exposing the disease to the public. The prevalence of influenza in 26 states was announced by U.S. Surgeon General Blue.

Many people believed the influenza outbreak was caused by Germany releasing a killer germ. Existence of the virus, which was little known, wouldn’t be recognized until the invention of the electron microscope.

A side note of the anti-German sentiment in this area was the response of the public. Prominent Delphos leaders would confront those felt not to be patriotic enough and drag them to Main Street to salute or kiss the American flag. Those deemed “slackers” for not buying enough war stamps had their barns painted yellow. German books were burned in Ottawa. The Schumm School, owned by the German Evangelical Church, which still taught German classes, was blown up on Oct. 20.

The serious situation in New England and more specially in Massachusetts, which has called for orders closing schools, churches and places of amusement was discussed by the public health authorities.

Back in Ohio, the state health department called on all health officials in the state to cooperate in collecting information and in restricting the spread of the influenza, calling attention to the serious interference with war production. The October draft call was cancelled because so many were ill.

On Sept. 29, The Herald reported “The remains of Grover H. Calvelage, formerly of Fort Jennings, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy July 5, were brought to this city Saturday morning to Kaverman and Jauman undertaking rooms on Second Street, and later taken to the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Calvelage of Fort Jennings. His death was due to the epidemic, influenza, which developed into broncho-pneumonia and his death followed.”

Early reports on Oct. 3 involved two Delphos soldiers, Carl King and Victor McKowen, stricken with influenza at Camp Taylor, Kentucky.

On Oct. 5 Mr. and Mrs. C. B. Swink were notified their son, Ferrell, was ill with influenza at the Frankford Arsenal at Philadelphia. His death was reported on Oct. 7. Out of the 225 stationed at the arsenal, 100 were ill of influenza, including 12 nurses and two doctors.

Former Delphos resident and undertaker W. W. Harter, working with as an undertaker in Brooklyn, N.Y., reported, “It is taking them by the thousands here. We are working night and day and then cannot begin to do all the work. I was at Calvary Cemetery and there were 1,500 caskets of influenza victims, waiting burial. Grave diggers are working ten hours a day, with an average of 300 funerals a day.”

On Oct. 8, the deaths of two Van Wert County young men were reported, who were stationed at Camp Sherman, Chilocothe, Ohio, Roy Weber, age 26; and Chancey Croghan, age 23. Peter Bendele of Ottoville, also succumbed at Camp Jackson, S.C.

An Ohio news release on Oct. 9 and 11 reported influenza deaths at 619 at Camp Sherman. Influenza cases in Cincinnati increased 10 percent in 48 hours, with 40,000 cases reported statedwide. Four deaths occurred at Wilbur Wright Aviation field in Dayton and 10 at Wellston. All churches, schools and theaters in Marion were closed.

The Delphos Board of Health closed schools, churches, lodge and club meetings, dances and parties, saloons, pool rooms, picture shows and all amusements and public gatherings. The Lima Board did the same. Three families in Spencerville were reported with the flu, and one case each of scarlet fever and typhoid.

Among the first local and area influenza deaths were Carl Dalk and Bert Butler of Delphos and Henry Klein of Ottoville. On Oct. 15 there were 56 cases reported with another 24 reported the next day. Sadly a young father, James A. Cross, whose family was afflicted with influenza, died Oct. 28, the same day his young child was buried, yet another influenza death.

Finally on Dec. 27, with few new influenza cases of deaths reported, the Delphos Board of Health lifted the ban on public funerals, gathering places and businesses.

Although the third wave of the influenza, milder but deadlier than the first, struck at year’s end and didn’t die out until the spring of 1919, Delphos was not as hard as other areas in Ohio. People didn’t want to thinks about the war deaths, and some equated the influenza deaths as coming from the enemy.

Today we know the pandemic deaths was the first of two involving the H1N1 virus, the second being the 2009 flu epidemic.

Last Updated on Monday, September 23, 2013 3:20 PM

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