“Heroic Work” – The incredible effort of Schuylkill County residents to fight the 1918 influenza pandemic

On October 23, 1918, Schuylkill County was still struggling through the worst epidemic to ever strike the Coal Region. Influenza, known as the Spanish flu, ravaged the anthracite coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania. At the same time, villages, towns, and cities across the globe were experiencing the same horrors.

The worst hit area in Schuylkill County was Minersville. In less than a month, more than 500 residents there died out of a population of about 8,000 – a death-rate of about 6%. Every community in the county felt the impact of the pandemic, even if they did not witness the disaster seen in Minersville.

Minersville - Bev Lytle Thomas
Minersville in the early 20th century. Accessed through the Historical Photos of Schuylkill County Facebook group. 

But amid the death and disease, there were glimmers of hope. County officials, businesses, and citizens joined up with state officials and the US Army to wage war on the virus in homes, workplaces, and in the dozens of emergency hospitals established across Schuylkill County.

Even as the outbreak raged in some quarters of the county, the editors at the Pottsville Republican made the decision to highlight the work of the doctors, nurses, and volunteers who heroically served to save lives amid the deadliest pandemic in human history.

Many Did Heroic Work To Check Epidemic

Pottsville, October 23 –

Every calamity in the nature of an epidemic brings untold misfortune to a community; but in the present instance it makes one shudder to think what might have been the result of the present dire visitation had it not been for the lives of hundreds of Schuylkill’s population, of whom many will be ever grateful; and many more will never know how closely there were to the river Styx when organization evolved order out of chaos and the ravages of the disease were checked.

Of all the forces that have been at work, civilian, military and corporate during the spread of the epidemic, few have any idea of how it was checked in the plague center of the county; or how hard and conscientiously the big men of the county labored to check it and its deadly complications, or what sacrifices were made by those who gave their time and bravely took chances that many would have hesitated to take in the ordinary walks of life.

The disease made its appearance about a week after it had invaded Boston, its first hotbed in the country; and as soon as the first cases were discovered in Minersville and Frackville, measures were taken to check it. Doctors continued to minister to the patients in crowded offices, assisted by their wives. Professional nurses were called into service and it became evident that rigid quarantine measures would have to be taken. The disease was getting the upper hand of the county’s practitioners and they knew it.

Doctors were compelled to work 20 hours a day and write prescriptions from sick beds, while druggists labored to fill hundreds of prescriptions from scarce and costly drugs as stocks vanished and their knowledge of transportation facilities and the impossibility of replenishing the stocks stared them in the face like casualty lists from an eastern battlefront.

County Medical Inspector J.B. Rogers received calls from the poor physicians and district doctors all over the county until his telephones were unable to register the calls. To get in touch with the doctors who knew the local situation in and about the colliery towns, the P. & R. C. & I. Company organization was placed at his disposal and from the time he opened headquarters at the company’s offices two weeks ago, the epidemic has been virtually handled from headquarters here.

J.B. Rogers
Dr. Jerome Bonaparte Rogers, MD

It was here the first score of army doctors came through the efforts of W.J. Richards who immediately opened the resources of the company and it was here the first organized effort to check the plague and learn its extent was accomplished, a special corps of clerks being put at the disposal of the medical officers for the purpose. More calls went for physicians from Camp Crane, New York, and Philadelphia, and the drugs the druggist did not have or could not get, were brought from the cities and sent to the points where they were most needed.

The large force of army surgeons were marshalled and worked in harmony and upon a given schedule, so that the ravages of the disease could be followed up with the discovery of each new case. There was more medical work being accomplished by the staff than would have followed a field operation of no small importance. Dressing stations were established in the hospitals, nurses placed, patients listed, kept track of and taken to the hospitals, and the direction of the entire force was conducted from the headquarters of the “Third Medical District” and done so well that the Northumberland County was added to the jurisdiction of Dr. Rogers who, at the start of the epidemic, had fought off the disease from a sick bed as head of the Schuylkill County organization.

As much work was being done, as would in many of the base hospitals of Europe daily, and yet the entire community took it as a matter of course and thought only of the possible ravages of the malady or whether it would “get into the mines and destroy, for the time being, the industrial life of the county.”

Professional and businessmen by the score hauled stricken patients to the hospitals in touring cars, caring naught for the chances of threatened infection, and the women of the county turned to the making of hospital garments and the nursing and tending of the sick.

Had not this been done, the county would have suffered the ravages of a plague which approached the proportions of a pestilence and the old saying that the most prosperous districts suffer most severely from war, pestilence and famine might have been a reality. War and pestilence have done their worst, and it is to be hoped that the county will be spared the horrors of famine; which would have undoubtedly been the people’s portion had not organization stepped in when the usual resources of the county failed.

Since the opening of the organized fight against the “Flu” and its consequent ailments, there was treated by the army doctors who served here, no less than 20,000 cases, and the doctors of the county treated as many or more. The miles traversed by the volunteers and the state and local ambulances amounted to many times the distance ‘round the globe and the big feature of it all is that fully 80 percent of the hospital cases have been restored to health and will ultimately get back their strength – a condition that would not have been possible had the cases remained in their homes.

Another outstanding feature of the work, which will not be appreciated by the layman is the work of the First Aid men in and about the mines. These men have prevented many thousands of cases and aided in the fight against the malady in the mines as soon as it made its appearance.

One prominent army surgeon said that after the showing made he believed “Schuylkill’s people could rise to anything.”

With these numbers, which were not yet complete at the time of this writing in October 1918, about 10% of Schuylkill County’s population was hospitalized during the pandemic’s worst month. Another 10% likely treated themselves at home without ever visiting an emergency hospital.

If not for the heroic work of US Army doctors, local physicians, nurses, both trained and volunteer, and organized citizens, the suffering in the southern Coal Region could have been a lot worse than it was.


Featured Image: Corpsmen in caps and gowns ready to attend patients in the influenza ward of the U.S. Naval Hospital on Mare Island, California, on December 10, 1918.

Read more about the 1918 influenza pandemic and its impact in the Coal Region


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3 thoughts on ““Heroic Work” – The incredible effort of Schuylkill County residents to fight the 1918 influenza pandemic

  1. My grandparents (my dad’s parents) and great grandmother died during that flu season. they left two little boys 3 and 5 years old. My dad was raised by 3 blind uncles in Gordon, Pa.

    Like

  2. I’d like to compare this to today but don’t want to start something.
    A lot of heroes back then, many more victims and suffering. Those living through it back then must have thought the world would never be the same again, let alone recover.
    What say or think we now–in just the beginning of……..?

    Like

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