Scientists study Spanish flu of 1918 and wonder: Could it happen again?

 

 
 
 

Author: MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

Hannibal Courier-Post (MO) - Saturday, October 4, 2003

 

 

Eighteen-year-old Jessie Lee Brown was working in the quartermaster laundry at Fort Riley, Kan., in March 1918 and witnessed the beginning of the most deadly outbreak of influenza in recorded history. The first documented case of what would become known as the Spanish Flu occurred when a mess cook, Pvt. Albert Gitchell, complained of a sore throat and achiness as he reported to sick call at Camp Riley's Camp Funston, a large cantonment constructed just months before and housing 60,000 soldiers. 

"It came in silently," 98-year-old Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux of Manhattan, Kan., would write in her autobiography published in March 1998 - the 80th anniversary of the epidemic's first outbreak. She wrote: 

"We lost lots of them. They came in so fast and furious. We'd be working with someone one day, and they'd go home because they didn't feel good, and by the next day they were gone. Every day we wondered who was going to be next. (Goodson)" 

Gaylynn S. Childs, director of the Geary County, Kan., Historical Society Museum at Junction City, Kan., said that the day after Gitchell fell sick, 40 more fell ill. A week later, 522 cases had been reported at Fort Riley in what would be the mildest of the flu's three waves. (Goodson.) 

Few people at that time understood the full implications of the epidemic at the Kansas military base. 

"(In the spring of 1918) Few noticed the epidemic in the midst of the war. (President Woodrow) Wilson had just given his 14 point address. There was virtually no response or acknowledgment to the epidemics in March and April in the military camps. It was unfortunate that no steps were taken to prepare for the usual recrudesence of the virulent influenza strain in the winter. These first epidemics at training camps were a sign of what was coming in greater magnitude in the fall and winter of 1918 to the entire world. (Billings)" 

These American soldiers, trained for combat at Kansas and other U.S. military bases, were deployed to fight in the "Great War" raging in Europe - an action probably responsible for spreading the virus around the world. 

"Within months, (the flu) had swept the world in a whirlwind of destruction. They called it The Spanish Influenza; La Grippe; and other names. Ironically, American soldiers and Sailors who were being sent to save democracy and lives probably spread it. Over the course of a year, three waves of the Flu hammered humanity. Upwards of 50 million people died; more than 700,000 in the United State alone. (Lara)" 

In the two years that the Spanish Flu ravaged the earth, a fifth of the world's population was inflected. An extimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, 10 times as many as in the world war. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy. (Billings) 

"By the fall of 1918, Kansas and Fort Riley were heading into their deadliest confrontation with the flu. 'The soldiers were going so fast,' Foveaux recalled. 'They were piling them up in a warehouse until they could get coffins for them.' The dying continued at such a pace that morticians could't keep up. There were piles of wooden coffins, and the bodies were eventually wrapped and put outside, where they froze and were stacked 'like cord wood,' Childs said. (Goodson)" 

Foveaux said that she and others followed procedures to try to keep from getting the flu. "We tried to be careful what we touched or what we ate. We were frightened to move, really. (Goodson)" 

"In September 1918, there were 133 cases of the flu in Kansas. Six days later, that number had climbed to 1,100. By mid-October, it had escaled to 12,000 cases, and communities across Kansas were reeling from its effects. At Camp Funston alone, there were 14,000 reported cases and 861 deaths during the first three weeks of October. The Kansas death toll had climbed to 12,000 by the end of the year. (Goodson)" 

Although one in four Americans were affected by this deadly virus, many people alive today have not heard of the tragedy that befell the world at the end of the Great War. 

"I know it's almost unbelievable. Three quarters of a million Americans died, but it doesn't stand out in the history books. Part of the reason is human nature. War is one thing. It involves warriors fighting against each other. No matter what weapons they use, the phenomenon is within our area of understanding. Not so with plagues. Too small to see, too deadly to comprehend, too much for the heart and mind to accept, their memory is psychologically repressed by the survivors. Such protective devices help us cope. (Lara)" 

Eighty years after the deadly outbreak of the Spanish Flu, scientists are looking for clues as to why the virus caused so much death and destruction. In the fall of 1998, Dr. Kirsty Duncan of the University of Windsor lead a team of scientists to the remote Norwegian island of Spitzbergen in an attempt to uncover the deadly virus's secrets. 

"Despite its isolated setting, the tiny village of Longyearbyen was not spared the horrors of the 1918 flu - several of its casualties are buried in the village cemetery. (Wilton)" 

By studying the past, scientists hope to obtain a clearer picture of the future. By studying the preserved tissues of those who fell to the dread disease, they can strive to prevent such an outbreak in the future. 

"Eighty years ago, medical researchers lacked the tools to keep up or deal with the movements of a virus. Not today. Every January, scientists and public health officials gather in the United States for the "Flu Meeting." There, they report on flu outbreaks happening around the world. The researchers know the genetic codes of the viruses and have carefully tracked their movements. With that information, the researchers determine which virus is most likely to break out during the next flu season. Drug companies are then given copies of the virus so that they can make vaccines. (Current Events)" 

Works cited 

Billings, Molly. "The Etiology of Influenza." June 1997. Internet source: 

http://www.stanford.edu/group/virus/uda/ 

Current Events. "The Birth of the Flus." Weekly Reader Corporation. Jan. 8, 1999. Vol. 84, Issue 9, p 7. Internet source: EBSCO Publishing. 

Goodson, Lori. "Pandemic." The Manhattan Mercury, March 1, 1998. Internet source: 

http://www2.okstate.edu/ww1hist/flu.html 

Henderson, C.W. "1918 Spanish Flu Victims Hold Clues to Fight Virus." World Disease Weekly. Nov. 29, 1999. Internet source: EBSCO Publishing. 

Lara, Rich. "The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and the Music of Life." Internet source: Official U.S. Navy Web site. 

http://www.ntcgl.navy.mil/history/index8.html 

Wilton, Peter. "Norwegian Cemetery May Hold Clues to Spanish Flu." Canadian Medical Association Journal. June 2, 1998. Vol. 158, Issue 11, p 1419. Internet source: EBSCO Publishing.

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