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  • It Spread Like Wildfire - The Flu Epidemic of 1918

It Spread Like Wildfire - The Flu Epidemic of 1918

It was early January, 1918, and Dr. Loring Miner, the county doctor practicing in Haskell County, Kansas was worried.  At 56 years old, it took a lot to worry the good doctor.  Tough, seasoned and very intelligent, he’d learned long ago that, as the only doctor covering an area with a hundred square mile radius in a very rural county in a rural state, he was going to see a lot—and treat a lot—in the course of his profession.  But this was different.  Very different.

He was seeing multiple patients who were showing symptoms of a common form of influenza.  The word alone had a tendency to make him sit up straight; he knew well what a bad case of influenza could do to the very young and the elderly. But this wasn’t like any influenza he had seen before.  These patients became sick very suddenly and had symptoms, in his words, of “terrifying intensity—violent headaches, body aches and non-productive coughing”.  What also concerned him was that the patients were on isolated farms with sometimes great distances between them. And he was seeing more and more of them every day.  

It had all the signs of becoming an epidemic.

Dr. Miner wrote an impassioned letter to the United States Public Health Department, stating his concerns and asking for assistance at the earliest possible time.  No answer came. Although the disease was terrifying and spreading very quickly, health officials did not take it seriously because it was mostly contained to isolated farms. Also, at that time, influenza wasn’t considered reportable;  it wasn’t a disease that physicians were required to report and there was no health agency that tracked it.  

By mid-February of 1918, Miner was completely overwhelmed with influenza cases.  Although it’s hard to be certain since reporting of influenza was uncommon, even among doctors, it seems that a rare circumstance of sheer luck—if there was luck, at all—prevented the infection from spreading into Colorado.  That wasn’t because it didn’t spread.  It just didn’t spread to Colorado. At least, not yet. 

Influenza 1918

At the start of 1918, the country was 10 months into fighting the largest war the world had ever seen, and the war effort made its presence known in Kansas. A year earlier, the government had chosen the Fort Riley Military Reservation as the site to build Camp Funston, a training camp for new soldiers preparing to go to war.  Just 250 miles from Haskell County, Funston housed 40,000 soldiers from the Army’s 89th Division, making it the second largest encampment in the country.  

But it was a record-cold winter, and Camp Funston was having problems. Supplies were low, and what heat was available was far from sufficient.  In an effort to guard against the cold, soldiers were packed as tightly as possible into the barracks in hopes it would help them stay warm.

With those conditions, local Haskell County boys stationed at Funston came home every chance they got, even though many of those back home were sick. A quick trip home when time allowed?  There’s no harm in that…or so it seemed, at the time.
Government Poster - Phot Credit Westland Newspaper 1918 
And then, early in the morning of March 4, 1918, Private Albert Ditchell, who was a cook in the kitchen, showed up at the infirmary complaining of a sore throat, fever and a bad headache.  By noon, 100 more soldiers came in with the same symptoms.  That number was up to 500 by the end of the week.  Three weeks later, 1,100 men had been hospitalized with symptoms, and, in the barracks, thousands more were sick.  According to camp hospital records, 237 of those hospitalized developed pneumonia, and of those 237, 38 died.  

Those numbers were startling, but what could be done? The country was at war; the Army needed every new soldier they trained. So, throughout the outbreak and the weeks that followed, Funston continued to ship out a constant stream of soldiers.  Some went to other military bases in the U.S.; others were shipped overseas.  

By April, the infection had spread to European bases in France, Germany and England. It then surfaced in Spain where newspapers covered “the strange” influenza in such detail that people thought that was where it started.  Thus, the name “Spanish flu”.  

It’s easy to forget that scientists knew nothing about viruses in 1918; their existence wouldn’t even be discovered for another 20 years. Scientists assumed the flu was bacterial, an assumption which left everyone totally unprepared for what happened next.  

The flu that started in Kansas—and had since stopped as quickly as it started—suddenly mutated into something much worse. It spread more easily from person to person. It was becoming increasingly fatal.  Most surprising of all, it targeted the least likely victims:  healthy people in their 20s and 30s, the same age of most soldiers—on both sides—who were in Europe by the millions.  By May, reports reached the U.S. of soldiers falling ill.  

A soldier from Hazeltine, Colorado wrote a letter to his father from his hospital bed in Europe after being wounded in battle. His words provide a glimpse of the concern no doubt felt by many. “Sure hope this Spanish flu don’t hit home. It’s a bad one. Other night, two docs was talking down the row. One says to the other it’s the worst he ever seen. I tell you, Dad. Truer words never been spoke.  If a fella don’t take a bullet from a squarehead he can still fall down from this flu. But don’t tell mother. She must not worry.”

Once the virus spread to civilians, it took off like a wildfire as people—soldiers and civilians—died by the thousands. Outbreaks were reported in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America and even the Arctic and remote Pacific Islands.

This second wave of the more deadly influenza wasn’t reported in the United States until late August when it showed up at Camp Devens in Boston among soldiers returning from the war.  

Hospital flu wardA doctor, newly assigned to Devens, wrote the following words to a colleague.  “These men start with what appears to be influenza and very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they already have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones. A few hours later you can see the cyanosis extend from their ears and spread all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. In only a few hours, death comes, and it is a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies… We have been averaging about 100 deaths per day, and still keeping it up. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a new infection here but what I don’t know.” The letter is signed, “Good-bye old pal. Until we meet again.  Roy”

Before long, 85,000 cases had been reported in the state of Massachusetts with 200 people dying in Boston every single day.

There had been no cases in Colorado. But then, on September 21 and less than a month after the flu appeared in Boston, 12 soldier trainees fell ill at the University of Colorado. Four days later, 75 sick students were quarantined in fraternity houses.  A few days after that, five cases showed up at the army base in Colorado Springs. On September 26, Colorado lost her first citizen to the flu.  Her name was Blanche Kennedy; she was a promising student at the University of Denver.  And she was only 22 years old.  

The major newspapers in Denver began to relay—every day and in great detail—the devastation the flu wrought upon the city, sensing their readers would devour every word. Small town papers served their readers, as well, but they did so in their own way. Straightforward, to the point, no beating around the bush.  Tell people what’s going on and leave it at that. Let them fill in the rest on their own.

Canon City High School Graduating class of 1918 - ColoradoOn October 19, the Range Ledger ran an article just half a column long.  In the plain and simple language of those who need no reminder that life brings with it pain and sorrow, it told a story that portrayed only what the reader was willing to imagine.  For some, the numbers of the sick or dying was enough, as if the heartaches of life are best left as just that, heartaches to be counted and tallied and then left alone. And for the others, those who chose to ponder what horrors resided in the space between the words, a picture emerged of a time that they feared could be one of the worst times that they would know in their lives. Twenty-seven more people had died in Denver, bringing the total dead to 78. One hundred and twenty four new cases were reported, bringing that total to 1,726.  In Caribou, mining camps were shutting down—there were no men left to work. Gunnison, which had no reported cases, passed a law that no one could leave or enter town, and they enforced it with gun-carrying guards on the roads. Monte Vista required everyone to wear masks in public as almost 300 people in that little town had fallen ill. Silverton, a town of only 2,000, had nearly 600 cases of the flu, and 75% of them were becoming pneumonia. The Pueblo Golf Course had turned its clubhouse over to the Red Cross where a nurse would care for the children of sick and dying parents. The article closed with the following facts: twenty new cases had been diagnosed in Pueblo, bringing the total sick to 704, and sixty-nine people had died so far.  The writer didn’t have to say it. Their readers weren’t stupid. In Pueblo, one out of every ten sick people will die.

For the most part, small town people are a stoic lot.  The farmer quickly learns to accept that there are many things in life over which he has no control; otherwise, he will not be a farmer for long. But acceptance is only possible if it goes hand in hand with hope. Stoic though he may be, he must have an equally tenacious belief that there’s a balance, a reason, a cycle in place that, left to run its course, will somehow make things right in the long run.

Baseball Player wearing flu mask - Photo Credit National GeographicBut what hope is there in fighting an invisible enemy against which there’s no defense?  What reason can be found in the arbitrary, sudden death of those who are so young and healthy? Where does something possibly exist to balance out such a loss of life?

Such questions do not go unanswered easily, and, in one town, the need to lay blame drove people to place responsibility on the nearby Utes for not taking precautions. In another, a growing crowd—including the mayor—blamed the Italians “who were known to be careless and lazy”.  

But, for every act driven by fear and anger and the weakness that gives birth to prejudice, there were ten acts of kindness as people refused to let the infection reach their souls. They didn’t look at the sick and see victims; they saw neighbors and friends they’d known all their lives, and numbers were replaced by faces and names.  And it all was reflected in the words on the pages of the small town paper.

“The Albert Walters family are all sick with the flu. Mrs. T.C. Schnebly and Mrs. Frank Carter are caring for them.  Mr. Carter is caring for Mr. Walters’ crops. Dr. Cobb is the attending physician, sometimes staying at the house all night.”

And, sometimes, when there was little that could be done, only words could express the grief shared by all.

“Undertaker W.O. Campbell was called to Genoa Tuesday afternoon to prepare for burial Mrs. Nora Agnes Howe, wife of Floyd O. Howe, who died of pneumonia as a result of an attack of the flu. Mrs. Howe was 23 years and 6 months of age, and leaves a baby 7 months old. The bereaved husband is also very ill with pneumonia. Mr. and Mrs. Howe had resided one mile northeast of Genoa for the last year, and had made many friends during their residence in the county. The funeral was private. She was buried in Genoa Cemetery.”
Trench Builders for Mass Graves
The epidemic continued through 1918 and passed into the year that followed.  Hospitals were overflowing with the sick. Doctors and nurses were overwhelmed and exhausted, sometimes falling ill, and sometimes passing away.  And others—be they other doctors or nurses or sometimes teachers and “good people”—stepped in and took their place.  Economies were damaged and took years to recoup. Some businesses were lost. But the greatest devastation was felt by the families who’d lost loved ones, and their loss was enormous.  Finally, in the spring of 1919, the tragedy quietly came to an end and the epidemic was declared officially over.

All told, 7,783 Colordoans died from the influenza of 1918 and 1919. Although no formal records for many of the counties in Southeastern Colorado were kept, a summary of the number of people in Kiowa County who died during 1918 totaled 32, not counting those in Eads.  How many were from the flu is not known. But there is no doubt that, in Kiowa County, as in every other county in Colorado, the wildfire of influenza left a burn scar that, for those who survived, would never truly heal.

Worldwide, roughly 500 million people were struck with influenza, and more than 50 million people lost their lives. In the United States, 675,000 people died, more than the number of soldiers killed in the war.  The impact was so large that the average life expectancy in the U.S. was decreased by 12 years in a single year.  

Victims struck with influenzaAnd now, literally 100 years later, the cause of the flu is still not definitively known. It’s believed to have originated with birds, initially, perhaps, in the chicken coops of Haskell County, just 150 miles east of Kiowa County. When and how a virus impacting birds could mutate and infect humans so quickly with such devastating effects is still being researched.  

Although scientists claim to be narrowing in on genetic factors of the virus as well as additional epidemiological issues, officials with the WHO, the CDC and numerous research labs around the world feel it’s of primary importance to discover a universal flu vaccine, based not just on viruses of the past but potential viruses of the future.  It seems the saying from back then remains true today:  the best way to survive the flu is to prevent it before it strikes.

On this solemn centennial, it seems equally important to understand what held things together during those 15 months of prolonged tragedy, especially in light of our inability as a people to tolerate hard times today with a semblance of grace and dignity. But maybe that’s the one answer that doesn’t elude us.  The determination to be decent, the tenacious hope for the return of hope may be the greatest strength we have if we can just learn to protect it from all the other things we do that ultimately brings us harm.

Kiowa County Healthmart