The Flu Epidemic Of Labor Day, September 1918

(Regnery Publishing)

Skip Desjardin Contributor
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This is an adapted excerpt from September 1918: War, Plague, and The World Series” (Regnery History, August 28, 2018) by Skip Desjardin.

The war in Europe was always on the minds of Americans, but it was not the only cause for concern. As September 1918 began, American workers, in Boston particularly, were facing their own set of problems closer to home.

“Labor Day 1918 is not like any Labor Day that we have known,” President Wilson told his “fellow citizens,” calling for Americans involved in war-related industries to take to the streets in a national show of support.

The annual Labor Day parade in Boston was unlike any the city had seen before—more a military display than a celebration of civilian workers.

There was a large crowd and there were thousands of marchers, including 1,000 sailors from Commonwealth Pier. These patriotic men and women were unaware that a deadly invisible enemy had silently invaded their ranks. The sailors and factory workers packed the streets, walking side by side, jostling one another, unavoidably breathing and coughing on the people around them. They had no idea that nearby, in military facilities at the Chelsea Naval Hospital and the Army’s Camp Devens, a biological fuse had ignited that would explode in Boston and the rest of Massachusetts, moving outward like a devastating shock wave that would reverberate around the world.

On September 3, the first civilian case of influenza was reported at Boston City Hospital as well, though that was only notable in retrospect. At the time, a single flu patient was unremarkable, one of a stream of patients with a wide variety of ailments admitted to a big-city hospital on any given day.

At Camp Devens, the number of patients in the cantonment hospital was starting to climb. While four soldiers had been admitted on September 1, there were 31 new cases the next day. Presenting symptoms gave doctors no reason to think they were anything but the normal aches and pains associated with a heavy cold—perfectly normal in a community of nearly 50,000 people. A few inevitably developed pneumonia. Still, there was no cause for real concern.

When death came to the Chelsea Naval Hospital, across the river from Boston it came all at once. On September 5, six of the influenza patients being cared for there died in one day, the first victims of a tide that would rise up and sweep across America. Five of them were sailors but one, in a sign of a critical complication yet to come, was a hospital apprentice.

Dr. Milton Rosenau and Dr. John Keegan knew they had a crisis on their hands in the hospital. Experienced infectious disease specialists, they could do the math in their heads and predict where these early cases could lead. So, from the time of the very first patients, they had tried to contain the disease. They were looking at an epidemic in its embryonic stage and needed to act quickly if they were to have any hope of containing it. But, in less than ten days after the first influenza cases appeared on the receiving ship at Commonwealth Pier, hundreds of naval personnel had become ill. The doctors could not keep up.

“The onset is very sudden,” Keegan reported, “the patient sometimes passing from an apparently well condition to almost prostration within one or two hours. The fever rises rapidly from 101 to 105 F., the patient usually complaining of severe headache, weakness, general malaise and pains of varying severity in the muscles and joints, especially in the back. As frequently described, the patient feels as though he has been beaten all over with a club.”

Dr. John S. Hitchcock, who headed the communicable disease section of the Massachusetts State Department of Health, sent a notice to local health . . . [and] hit upon a hard truth. “Unless precautions are taken, the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population of the city,” he predicted.

He was right.

If Hitchcock’s civilian warning reached military commanders via official channels or passed along by local authorities, it was ignored.

[Shortly after], 300 servicemen traveled by ship from Boston to Philadelphia. They quickly integrated with troops from other parts of the country, and they were almost immediately shipped out again to destinations such as the massive Great Lakes Naval Training Center north of Chicago, or all the way to the west and the facility at Puget Sound in Seattle.

The virus had escaped.

[By September 22, a] virulent epidemic was roaring through the camp; the deadly virus was feasting on the young men packed together like a bacteriological buffet.

“One day fifty were admitted; the next day 300, then the daily average became 500; into a 2,000-bed hospital 6,000 patients crowded,” lamented Jane Malloy, the camp hospital’s chief nurse. “Every inch of available space was used. Three miles of hospital corridors were lined on both sides with cots.”

Sickness and death were overwhelming the Camp Devens infrastructure. Over 10,000 soldiers had already been diagnosed with influenza. More than sixty died just in the eight hours it took Welch and his doctor colleagues to make their way to the camp from Washington. Many of the healthy soldiers were put to work caring for their ill brothers-in-arms. Lieutenant Colonel Condon C. McCornack reported:

Most of these men were new to the service and they didn’t know anything about hospital work. They were told what they were up against. They knew that many of them were going to contract the disease and that some of them would die. But when they knew that men were dying at the hospital because their help was needed, and when the order came to go up there for duty, not a man of them so much as looked back. And some did contract the disease and some of them did die. But they knew that it was part of the army game and they did it willingly and gladly, like true soldiers.

“Owing to the rush and the great numbers of bodies coming into the morgue, they were placed on the floor without any order or system,” Rufus Cole later wrote to a colleague, “and we had to step amongst them to get into the room where an autopsy was going on.”

Typical influenza killed the weak: infants, the aged, and the infirm. This was not even familiar pneumonia, filling its victims’ lungs with fluid. The yet-unidentified virus was preying on strong young adults, men and women in the prime of their lives. It was literally turning their pulmonary systems to jelly.

However, by the last day of September, as quickly as the epidemic wave had swelled, it now crested. Nearly every person in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had been exposed to influenza. Many had fought off the infection with little consequence. Others had taken gravely ill but ultimately survived. Thousands had perished. Now, there was almost no one left for the Spanish flu to kill.

The last day of September was sunny and warm, a classic New England Indian Summer day, and the clear signs that the epidemic was running its course were finally evident. Hospitals in Boston, Brockton, and Lynn all reported a decrease in the number of cases. At Camp Devens, as 118 soldiers checked in to the hospital, 248 men were released. As September 1918 came to a close, for the first time in weeks, there were reasons to be hopeful.

Skip Desjardin