An Anniversary We Don’t Want To Repeat

Yesterday, September 28, was the the anniversary of the 1918 parade that turned the city of Philadelphia into a Spanish flu hotspot.

“Spanish flu” is a misnomer. The disease probably came from a Midwestern farm animal or bird. The culprit was the H1N1 virus, which moved through various animal populations, then mutated into a strain that could infect people. The first confirmed victim was an Army private at Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918. In the spring, after spreading relatively slowly through the United States, it was carried to Europe by soldiers fighting in World War I.

Just like calling COVID-19 the “Chinese flu,” the pandemic got the name Spanish Flu because the first major outbreak in Europe happened to be in Spain. Since that country was neutral in World War I, its press wasn’t being censored and were the only ones openly reporting the disease.

Normally the flu attacks the most vulnerable — the youngest and oldest citizens. But this strain also attacked younger people; most of its victims were between 15 and 40. Patients quickly developed pneumonia and many were dead within three days. Medical wisdom at the time thought the cause was a bacterium; the virus wasn’t identified until 1933. Consequently, there was no effective treatment, which wouldn’t have made much difference anyway since hospitals were quickly overwhelmed.

For example, Navy nurse Josie Brown in St. Louis was quoted saying: “We didn’t have the time to treat them. We didn’t take temperatures; we didn’t even have time to take blood pressure. We would give them a little hot whisky toddy; that’s about all we had time to do.” She also said: “Our Navy bought the whole city of Chicago out of sheets. There wasn’t a sheet left in Chicago. All a boy got when he died was a winding sheet and a wooden box; we just couldn’t get enough caskets.”

By the fall of of 1918, the virus had spread from Europe to Africa, India, and the Far East. Worse, a second wave was hitting Boston. News quickly reached Philadelphia and doctors called for a quarantine. But the Liberty Loan Parade was scheduled for September 28 to sell war bonds. So the decision was made to go forward with the largest parade in the city’s history, with 200,000 spectators. A few days later, the flu was running rampant throughout Philadelphia. Just like in the Middle Ages during the Black Plague, horse-drawn carts patrolled the streets calling for people to bring out their dead. The morgue was so overloaded that workers from the Bureau of Highways used a steam shovel to dig mass graves. The city was finally put under quarantine, almost 12,000 deaths too late.

And just like today, attempts were made to shift the blame to others. Some suspected our World War I enemy Germany. Bayer aspirin, manufactured in the United States under a German patent, was assumed to be poisoned. The New York Times wrote in October: “Let the curse be called the German plague. Let every child learn to associate what is accursed with the word German not in the spirit of hate but in the spirit of contempt born of the hateful truth which Germany has proved herself to be.”

Ultimately, the Spanish flu claimed more lives than all the battles of World War I combined — between 50 and 100 million worldwide (600,000 in the United States alone). And how was it finally stopped? It wasn’t, it simply ran out of nonresistant victims.

For more information, see The Writer’s Almanac for September 28, 2020 (https://www.spreaker.com/user/prairehomeproductions/the-writers-almanac-monday-september-28-)

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