Some say that great pandemics come along once every 100 years or so. Current circumstances would suggest that’s true. In 1918, 102 years ago, Americans were going through something similar to what we’re experiencing now.
It was early January in 1918. 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 big, 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, many of whom raised chickens, 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, expressing 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 the west. At least, not yet.
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At the start of 1918, the United States was 10 months into fighting the largest war the world had ever seen, and the war effort was most certainly a presence in the state of Kansas. In July of 1917, just 250 miles up the road from Haskell County, 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. Built to hold 40,000 soldiers from the Army’s 89th Division, it was the second largest encampment in the country.
Camp Funston was having problems of its own. The record cold winter of 1917 to 1918 had resulted in barracks being overcrowded. Supplies—especially clothing and blankets—were low, and what heat was available wasn’t good enough to keep anyone truly warm. Things were so bad that the Army even broke its own rules and deliberately packed soldiers into barracks, hoping that would help offset the cold outside.
With those kinds of conditions, it’s no wonder that local Haskell County boys stationed at Camp Funston came home every time they could, even if many of the people back home were sick. After all, with the camp only 250 miles away, they could see the folks and be back in not much time, at all.
However, before breakfast on the morning of March 4, 1918, Private Albert Ditchell, 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 thousands more were sick. According to camp hospital records, 237 men developed pneumonia, and of those 237 men, 38 died.
Those numbers were startling. But the country was at war and needed all the new soldiers they could get. And, except for those men whose cases turned serious and even fatal, the rest of the soldiers seemed to have a relatively mild form of the sickness. After all, it was being called—even by doctors—the “three day flu”. 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 of 1918, less than a month after Private Ditchell first showed up in the infirmary at Camp Funston, the infection had spread to European bases—first in France, then Germany and England and then to Spain.
Spain was neutral in the war, and, as such, did not feel the need to censor news reports that might hurt the morale of its people. Newspapers carried daily, detailed accounts of where this “new and strange” influenza hit. But when newspapers reported that Spanish King Alphonse XIII and several members of his cabinet had become sick, news spread around the world, leading people to think the influenza had started in Spain. From that point on, the influenza was called the “Spanish flu”.
Viruses are too small to be seen with light microscopes, which were the only microscopes in use in 1918. Unable to see the virus, scientists and doctors were caught completely unprepared for what happened next. The strain of the flu that started in Kansas mutated into one that spread even more easily from person to person. And, when it hit, it hit hard. By May, reports were reaching the U.S. of soldiers falling ill.
Written from his hospital bed in Europe by a Hazeltine soldier who’d been wounded in battle, a letter sent to his family back home was printed in local papers. “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. 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 wildfire. Outbreaks were reported Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America and even the Arctic and remote Pacific Islands.
The second wave of influenza wasn’t seen in the United States until late August when it showed up at Camp Devens in Boston among soldiers returning from the war.
A doctor, newly assigned to Camp Devens, wrote the following words to a colleague. “These men start with what appears to be an attack of influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply 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”
As if it wasn’t bad enough that the flu was highly infectious and more deadly than any flu on record, it was also striking a group of people that doctors and scientists had never seen before: healthy, young people in their 20s and 30s who were in their prime of life.
Up until the fall of 1918, Colorado had been spared the devastation of the flu, but that was not to last. On September 21, 1918, 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. Five cases showed up at the base in Colorado Springs just a few days after that. Colorado’s first fatality was a 22 year old University of Denver college student named Blanche Kennedy, who had just returned from a visit in Chicago where more than 100 people had died so far. Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, 85,000 cases had been reported statewide and people in Boston were dying at a rate of 200 every day.
Although rarely covered in major newspapers, the impact of the flu on rural Colorado is most evident in the local newspapers of the time. In early 1918, headlines were focused on the war. Nine months later, the war was covered on page 2 as local newspapers had their attention entirely devoted to the “home state”.
On October 19, 1918, the Range Ledger ran a full column article, reporting that 27 more people had died in Denver, bringing the total dead to 78, and 124 new cases were reported bringing that total to 1,726. The Ledger went on to report that in Caribou, a town west of Boulder, mining camps were shutting down everywhere due to a shortage of labor. The town of Gunnison, which had no reported cases, had passed an emergency law stating no one could leave or enter the city, and it was enforced by armed guards on the roads. Monte Vista, the article reported, now required all people to wear masks in public since close to 300 cases of the flu had been diagnosed. Silverton, a town of 2,000, was reporting between 500 and 600 cases of the flu with 75% becoming pneumonia. The article stated that the Pueblo Golf Course had turned its clubhouse over to the Red Cross where a nurse would care for the children of sick parents. The article closed with the following facts: 20 new cases had been diagnosed in Pueblo, bringing the total sick to 704, and 8 new deaths brought the death toll to 69.
Several days later, Westland, a newspaper in Kiowa County, announced that new rules were being passed in Pueblo where wearing a mask was required of anyone who ventured into public and, effective immediately, all public gatherings were cancelled and all schools, churches, theaters and places of amusement were closed until further notice. Within a day, Colorado Springs followed Pueblo’s lead after the death of three students from Colorado College.
The epidemic overwhelmed doctors, nurses and hospitals. Some counties had no doctors, and others had sent their doctors off to war. Many of the doctors who remained grew ill and died. Nurses fared no better. So many grew ill themselves that towns and counties began to ask teachers to help out. Numerous small towns requested nurses from Public Health only to find none were available. When all the nurses at Lamar’s emergency hospital became sick, a dozen naval hospital apprentices stationed at Fort Lyons took their place. As hospitals became filled to capacity, patients were directed to makeshift hospitals set up in schools, hotels, city halls, churches and rooming houses.
And then, as fall wore on and the end of the year approached and passed with no respite from the epidemic in sight, local newspaper coverage changed. Individual names and circumstances began to appear. Illness was so prevalent that one local official said, “If we list all who are ill, it would be the equivalent of printing the city directory.” Gradually, coverage consisted of a single sentence.
“Clark Wright came up in a hurry from his ranch in Arroyo upon receiving news that all three of his children were seriously ill.”
“Herbert Shewalter died at his home northwest of Haswell after a few days’ illness with the Spanish flu.”
“A family of six northeast of Chivington has taken ill. Two neighbor women are caring for the sick with one husband doing the farming. Doctor is standing by.”
In other cases, more was said.
“Undertaker W.O. Campbell was called to Genoa Tuesday afternoon to prepare for burial of 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.”
Although no formal records for many of the counties in Southeastern Colorado were kept for those people who died as a result of the flu, 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 some of those 32 were victims.
By the time the flu epidemic was declared over, more than 50 million people—or one fifth of the world’s population--had been affected. 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. Economies, in many places, were damaged and took years to recoup. But the greatest devastation, by far, was experienced by families who lost precious members and communities who lost so many from a single generation. That kind of loss is never truly repaired.
The cause of the flu is still not definitively known, but it’s believed to have originated with wild migratory birds who infected chickens, 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 is still being researched. It is known that that particular virus was especially deadly because it targeted and then quickly spread throughout the respiratory system.
Although scientists claim to be narrowing in on genetic factors of the virus as well as additional epidemiological issues that might be related, officials with the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control and numerous research labs around the world feel it’s of primary importance to track viruses in wild animals because transmission from animals to humans is an ever present possibility.
Nonetheless, we are left with a number of questions. What would have happened if Dr. Miner had been listened to from the beginning and a constant stream of soldiers had not been transferred out of Camp Funston to the front lines? If he were alive today, what advice would Dr. Miner give us? What have we learned, as a nation and a society of people, from history? What will people say about our response to this pandemic a hundred years from now? Some of the answers to those questions will only be answered with time.