The Deadliest Flu in History (8)


Part eight – The Deadliest Flu of 1918 – Government Involvement

History buffs would remember the saying, “Good old Wilson,” Wilson had been preparing for war since April 1917, but obtaining adequate troops prepared for war took time. It would not be until the summer 1918 when Wilson’s intent was directed at war.

Wilson did other things; he created the food administration, fuel administration, he rationed coal and gasoline, and he did everything but drive the engine of the railroads. He also created more income through the creation of a barge line on the Mississippi River, which started the competition with the railroad.

Wilson, The Deadliest Flu in History (8)Wilson developed and instructed states to build various military institutions, those you have heard about during the reading of this article. Now the United States had tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors, and on top of that, Wilson created shipyards with thousands of workers and builders of hundreds of ships. He also dug new coal mines to produce coal; the nation was suffering during the coal strike of 1918. Schools were closed and places of entertainment, but most of all places of employment let people go because no coal meant no heat, especially during the winter months.  Wilson was determined to bring this country back. So perhaps that’s why we remember the saying, “Good old Wilson.”

One thing president Wilson did not expect was the deadliest flu to hit the United States.

Wilson began traveling from military institution to the next during the summer of 1918. This was the time when government expanded the draft and change the age from 21 to 30, now 18 to 45. He also began the work or fight order, he believed if you were not employed with industry you should be drafted. So began an estimated 13 million people to register for the draft. Peace was not far away but Wilson shrugged the idea while Austria had inquired about peace and Bulgaria signed an armistice on September 29, 1918 it was then that Ludendorff warned the government, Germany must begin peace feelers or they would feel immediate disaster. Although Germany followed suit, Wilson ignored it. Austria submitted a letter to Pres. Wilson and requested piece by any means but only a week or so later more deaths and destruction. Wilson had mentioned the statement, “peace without victory.” This gave Americans the feeling that war must continue. Wilson, believe the war profited the country and he said, “To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, force, force to the utmost. Force without limit. The righteous and triumphant force which shall make right the law of the world, and cast every selfish dominion down in the dust.”

This is what brought about the parade in Philadelphia for the liberty loan rallies, when  people were pushing and shoving breathing down each other’s neck and the flu spread. During the parade you heard the shouts from the people, “good old Wilson.”

It was the military who felt the impact of the flu. On the day that Wilson delivered the powerful speech noted above, was the day that Welch stepped out of the autopsy room and told the chief of staff, “any transfers from this room will be frozen, it was absolutely necessary and under no circumstances transfers from infected camps be made: the deaths at Camp Devens, will probably exceed 500 and the experience at Camp Devens is expected to occur at large cantonments – – new men will almost surely contact the disease.”

As you recall there was no stopping the transfer of people in the military from one camp to another, the warning was never taken to heart. Weeks later, tens of thousands of soldiers were dead or dying. The only adjustment made came from Crowder who demanded the next draft be canceled. The draft would have included 142,000 men to new camps around the country. Because of Crowder it is known that he and he alone saved thousands from death. He stated, “There would be no training until the disease passed.”

Although Crowder was right the federal government demanded replacement of troops who had passed away due to the disease.

At this time the vessel “Leviathan” began to load troops onto its deck. On her voyage back to the United States, from Germany, many of the men and boys were dumped overboard dying from the flu. When the shift arrived in New York many were sick including the secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was so ill with the flu that he spoke to know what and doctors kept a constant watch on the secretary.

The medical Corps insisted that any man who showed signs of the flu not be allowed to board any ship. Now, military personnel who carried guns enforced this law, in addition, if any military personnel became ill while traveling aboard a ship they would be closed behind watertight doors, like fish in the sea, they would remain alone either to die or be cared for on arrival into the states. Military personnel were afraid to be near anyone who carried this disease.

What happened on the vessel mentioned above, was told by Col. Gibson who was the commander of the 57th, Vermont, “The ship was packed – conditions were such that the influenza could breed and multiply with extraordinary swiftness. The number of sick increased rapidly, Washington was apprised of the situation, but the call for men for the Allied armies was so great that we must go on at any cost. Doctors and nurses were stricken. Every available doctor and nurse was utilized to the limit of endurance. The conditions during the night cannot be visualized by anyone who had not actually seen them. Moans and cries of the terrified added to the confusion of the applicants clamoring for treatment and altogether a true inferno reigned supreme.”

This was not the only ship with reports like Gibson, people reported the dead lined the deck as bodies lined the ground at Camp Devens.  Similar to Camp Devens, there was no room for any sick there was no free medical help everyone was either sick or dying or busy. Some people recall ships in storms where bodies rolled from the deck into the sea. Like other military institutions on land the deaths came within hours of each other and the burials at sea began.

Back on land the doctors reported that hospitals were closing because of the epidemic. There would be no place for the sick at sea when they returned home.

It would be hard to believe in this day and age, that Pres. Wilson made no public statement to the people of our country. It is known that people spoke to the president concerning this outbreak and the deaths at sea on military vessels but Wilson took no action.

Pres. Wilson’s physician was Dr. Grayson, also the doctor for Teddy Roosevelt’s and William Howard Taft when holding the office of President. Grayson was not only the presidents physician, but also a friend, and in this case, advisor. {If you recall, Pres. Wilson had a stroke in 1919, and it would be Grayson and the first lady who ran this country.} It would be Grayson who told Wilson to stop the deployment of man to France, and finally the president agreed.

After the military stopped arriving in France, the war ended within a month.

Pres. Wilson had few concerns about those who are suffering and dying with this disease, in the military and in the general public. He continued to say nothing publicly about the influenza and there is no record of Pres. Wilson speaking to any civilian of the government about ways to end this disease.

Answer, the Surgeon General, Rupert Blue, who also headed the United States Public health service. It was no secret that Welch and von never liked the public health service representative and even the president’s own Dr. Grayson, disliked the man.  Everyone knew his background, blue, finishing his medical studies in 1892 entered the public health service and immediately began serving the military from port to port. His first ignorant act happened in San Francisco with the bubonic plague of 1903. He kept the disease under control and gained many powerful friends through his medical research. But he never did eradicate the plague from spreading from animals, rats, dogs that entered in land to Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. After he praised his own success in San Francisco the plague reappeared in 1907. Once again he eradicated the disease in San Francisco which won him additional friends from the higher up.

Blue, also began to Congress the expansion of public health services. He pushed for national health insurance and then was named president of the American medical association in 1916. He told the people during his address, “There are unmistakable signs that health insurance will constitute the next great step in social legislation.”

When Wilson was elected he never named the new Surgeon General but he did make the public health service part of the military.

If you recall Dr. Gorgas, from previous articles, he advised the generals of such a disease before the epidemic began. It was Dr. Blue, who did absolutely nothing with the information. What he did do was block the research which was requested by powerful doctors in both New York and Boston. He also stopped money from going to a laboratory to research regarding pneumonia at the Rockefeller Institute. Dr. blue new the possibility of an epidemic in the United States, comments by him were written in the Memphis medical monthly on August 1 which mentioned a warning concerning the flu. He prepared nothing nor did he gather any research or information concerning this disease and he never informed anyone in the public health service to prepare in case of a crisis.

Remember the breakout at the Commonwealth. In Boston late in August 1918. Remember hospitals were filled with those sick and dying by September 9, 1918? Remember, Devens had 3500 flu cases and this spread to civilians in Massachusetts. Talk about politics – it would not be until September 10 when the public health official in Massachusetts said he first heard of this epidemic. The virus already spread.  If you recall the ports released ships filled with sick and dying military men who arrived at ports in New Orleans by 4 September, and the naval station at the Great Lakes by September 7, and in Connecticut at the docks in New London on September 12. How could any public health official know nothing about such a large epidemic? Why would the public health official wait until September 13 to make any public announcement? It was on that day that the head of public health sent a notification out which stated this was only influenza nothing else and no need for quarantine.

To remind you the influenza then reached Puget Sound on September 17 and the head of public health began to see the spread of influenza as the disease entered not only the military bases but civilians.

It wasn’t until September 21 that Washington DC had its first death from the influenza, a common man who worked for the railroad. It is known that this man was exposed to the flu four days earlier in New York City. The timeframe continued people who left places where the flu spread like wild flowers, and entered other states, New Jersey, Virginia, and so forth, do they finally feel this is a disease that is rapidly killing the people of the United States.

I would like to take a moment before ending of this part of the deadliest flu in the world, with a handout which came from the surgeon general. It read; avoid needless crowding – smother your cough and sneezes – you are knows not your mouth was made to breathe through – remember the three C’s clean mouth, clean skin, and clean close – food will win the war – health by choosing and chewing your food well – wash your hands before eating – don’t let the waste products of digestion accumulate – avoid tight close, tight shoes, tight gloves – seek to make nature your ally not your prisoner – when the air is pure or breathe all of it you can – breathe deeply.

Part 9 – It’s a Viral Infection

1 Comment
  1. Daphne Shapiro says

    Thanks Nancy, for another in-depth article on a subject my generation knows nothing about. It amazes me how nonchalant people treated this pandemic when it started out.

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