Pandemic of 1918: How did we react?

 

By: Jennifer K. Bauer of the Lewiston Tribune 

Published: May 11, 2009

 

In the Normal Hill Cemetery, under the eyes of a sad-eyed marble Jesus, lies Lewiston’s first fatality of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Sister Mary Evangelista Wark contracted the flu from a patient she was nursing at St. Joseph’s Hospital, according to Lewiston historian, Dick Riggs. She was one of the seven Catholic nuns who died during the outbreak. The first wave of the 1918 pandemic appeared in the spring followed by much more fatal second and third waves in the fall and winter of 1918-1919.

The pandemic’s most striking feature was its unusually high death rate among health people ages 15-34, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Wark, 36, died October 23, 1918.

In the past decade, the deadly 1918 flu has been studied intensely to help understand recent outbreaks of similar strains. Locally, one of the hardest hit areas was Nezperce, say David Pierce, a retired public health microbiologist living in Moscow who has spent the past two and a half years researching the region’s reaction to the 1918 flu. In the wake of recent outbreaks of avian flu, and now swine flu, Pierce was curious to know how small communities reacted to the 1918 pandemic.

“There were no real cased here until October but by the 10th of October there were presumably about 100 cases in Nezperce. Over the next week it jumped to 300. Nezperce had three doctors, one of whom quickly became ill with influenza,” Pierce says. The population of Nezperce was 677 at the 1920 census.

People and doctors from around the region, along with the Red Cross, went to Nezperce to help. Like most towns, a temporary hospital was set up to keep people off the streets. Regular hospitals were full. According to his research, 18 people died there.

“The epidemic was well reported nationally, regionally and locally in the Lewiston Tribune,” says Pierce, who studied multiple area newspapers. The tribune listed the names and addressed of those quarantined along with their status. The emergency hospital in Lewiston was the Knights of Columbus Hall. In Clarkston, it was the basement of the Christian Church. According to his research, Lewiston with a population of 6,547 at the 1920 census had about 850 reported cases of influenza and about 50 deaths. Clarkston had about 12 deaths. Not all died of the flu. Many died of secondary inflection of pneumonia.

“It never was as severe out here, I don’t think, as it was in the East but lots of people got ill,” Pierce says. One of the reasons was the reaction of the Lewiston’s public health officer, Dr. Susan Bruce, who quickly put a quarantine into effect. She required doctors to report to her on a daily basis on who had the flu. Schools were closed for months, with junior high and high school students doing assignment at homes. Movie houses were shut. Public gatherings, like lodge meetings and church services were forbidden to be held indoors. Quarantine signs were posted on homes.

In Moscow, the first case appeared at the university. Since there was a large gap between university and the town, a ban was instituted on going back and forth.

“Knowing there were all these sick young men on campus, the people in town really went out of their way,” says Pierce, adding they sent a horse drawn cart up the hill daily with canned food and fresh vegetables, chicken broth and slaughtered chickens.

The tribune was full of ads for over the counter drugs claiming to help. “Most of us, in these busy days cannot afford, if it can be avoided, to lose a week or more of work,” read an ad from the Idanha Pharmacy that ran November 1, 1918. A few breaths of “pure healing air” from an Oil of Hyomel inhaler every half-hour could “help stamp out the spread of the disease,” it claimed.

“Human viruses were not isolated at that time in history so they really didn’t know what was causing it,” says Scott Minnich, a professor of microbiology at the University of Idaho. During the epidemic, 20 million to 50 million people died worldwide. A few years ago the bodies of some were exhumed from permafrost in Alaska in an effort to understand what made the virus so virulent.

“A lot of information is restricted for its potential use as biological weapon,” Minnich says. “We understand some, but not all.”

Today within days of an outbreak a virus’ entire nucleic acid sequence is documented with changes constantly updated, Minnich says. Information is quickly available to the public.

“I think the way we handled it then is not too different from the way we’ll handle it now,” Pierce says. “There aren’t going to be any surprises this time, there just aren’t. Anything that happens the public is going to have had some warning.”  

© 2019 by Nez Perce County Historical Society and Museum

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