“A matter of life and death” – A reflection on the 1918-19 pandemic’s aftermath in Wilkes-Barre

By the summer of 1919, the shock and terror of the horrific wave of influenza that swept over America the previous fall and winter had worn off and Americans began to reflect on the still on-going pandemic’s toll on the United States.

Influenza 1918

The editors at the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader took similar steps after reading a draft of the Harding-Fess resolution in the United States that sought to spend $5 million to research the cause of the 1918-19 pandemic. In an urgent editorial – including lots of capitalization! – the Times Leader warned of a coming surge in the autumn of 1919 and emphasized the importance of studying and preparing for future epidemics. This memorable line stands out: “Every doctor will tell you, ‘There may be another epidemic!'”

From the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, July 31, 1919

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH FOR HUMAN BEINGS

A measure of vital concern to every human being in this country is under consideration in Congress today. It is the bill appropriating $5,000,000 for the investigation of influenza, its cause, prevention, and cure. Nothing this Congress has to deal with is of greater importance to the men, women, and children of America.

We all remember without an effort the darkness and terror which engulfed the land last fall and winter as death [traveled] swiftly from seaboard to seaboard, into crowded city and unto lonely plain, sparing not the cottage of the poor nor the mansion of the rich. In four short months influenza claimed a half million lives, and pressed millions of others onto beds of sickness, suffering, and helplessness. The nation’s mortality rate leaped high and with astounding speed.

Influenza 1918
Nurses demonstrate carrying a patient during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic (Library of Congress)

The nation was unprepared to cope with a disease calamity such as it had never known.

Not even the most learned of bacteriologists could tell a stricken world what manner of germ it was which reaped so heavily of life.

Nor could the wisest of health officials tell a frightened humanity how to avoid the germ, unknown and unexplainable. Preventative methods they advised were many, and mostly these were founded upon hope, built of good wishes, and to this day there is no exact indication of the success or failure of the “flu” mask, the thousand and one sprays, swabs, and washes, nor even of the efficacy of the city-wide quarantine.

At the outset of the influenza pandemic we were told that the disease was caused by the Pfeiffer bacillus. And before 500,000 AMERICANS WERE IN THEIR GRAVES we were assured by an overwhelming majority of bacteriologists that this particular bacillus was innocent of influenza whatever else it might be guilty of.

We were no nearer a solution then than we were at the beginning when the epidemic first overwhelmed Boston.

Being at a loss as to what bacillus caused influenza, not the most experienced of our physicians could with any marked degree of assurance promise stricken patient a remedy.

As we guessed at the cause and the prevention so we guessed at the cure.

Result: Six hundred thousand influenza coffins in ten months, and unknown millions of persons left easier preys of other disease germs.

US Army Hospital - 1918 (1)
U.S. Naval Hospital. Corpsmen in cap and gown ready to attend patients in influenza ward. Mare Island, California, 12/10/1918. (U.S. Navy)

The country’s financial loss is another matter of guesswork. It has been estimated at several billion dollars.

And only five million dollars are asked for the proposed investigation!

More has been spent on studying diseases of hogs. More has been spent in subduing the boll weevil, the cinch bug and the army worm.

We KNOW little or nothing about influenza. Once we called it “Russian” influenza because it appeared in Russia before it did here. Next time we called it “Spanish” influenza because it found victims in Spain before it came to America. We don’t know when it started, nor where, nor how, and for all we know it may come at any time and at any place.

But we DO KNOW that when it comes it leaves behind it a death toll greater than war, heavier than any other modern disease scourge.

And, further, we DO KNOW that there are recurring waves of influenza, often for years after the initial appearance of the epidemic. This is as sure as the rising and setting of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tide.

Not a physician in all the world will say that he is sure there will be no recurring epidemic of influenza in this country this fall and winter. Every doctor will tell you, “There may be another epidemic!” A large proportion of our leading physicians insist, “There WILL be another wave of influenza epidemic this fall and winter.”

So let us get ready.

By getting ready wisely, effectively, and universally, we may prevent the recurrence, or we may lessen the number of stricken or the severity of the visitation, and fewer influenza patients will die.

If Congress enacts the Harding-Fess influenza bill, and does it immediately, this nation is launched upon a preparedness movement which is certain to bring us nearer an influenza solution than we now are. If money is necessary, let us spend more than a few paltry million. It is lives we are saving, not dollars.

The money appropriated is to be spent by and under the direction of the U.S. Public Health Service, the medical departments of the army and navy, and such other public and private laboratories as may have facilities for assisting in the work.

It doesn’t matter who finds the offending germ, nor who discovers the method of prevention or cure. The main point is to do it. And, if we wish to save the lives of millions of human beings, the discovery of the bacillus and preventive and curative methods must come quickly.

These will come more quickly if your Congress appropriates the necessary money, at once, without unnecessary delay.

CONGRESS HAS NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT ON ITS HANDS.

That means, the congressman from this district, and the senators from this state has nothing more important on hand than this “flu” bill.

They may not realize this.

DO YOU?

If you do, and you fear they don’t, why not sit down and write them letters, or telegraph them, making sure that they shall know that YOU realize the dire need of an early started influenza investigation?

Flu Nurses - October 1918 - Wilkes-Barre Social
Volunteer nurses in Georgetown, Luzerne County, October 1918

Throughout the editorial, the editors refer to influenza under the mistaken belief that it was bacillus or caused by bacteria. More than a decade later, the influenza virus was discovered the early 1930s. 

The urgency with which the editors put forth this appeal to investigate and research the pandemic, along with tools to prevent a repeat of the horror show of October-December 1918, shows just how devastating the pandemic was to communities in the Coal Region and across the United States. Pandemics, like the one that gripped the world in 1918 to 1920, will be an ever-present part of human existence, as we’ve learned more than a century later. Taking measures to prevent the next one are just as important now than they were in 1919.  Though medicine has advanced lightyears in the last century, the COVID-19 pandemic shows that we remain vulnerable to novel infectious diseases and will continue to be in the future. Just as in 1919, we must actively learn the lessons from our own pandemic that has killed 500,000+ Americans in less than a year and not bury our heads in the sand (or claim that it is a fraud, a scam, a lie, or a conspiracy).


Featured Image: Emergency influenza hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas (National Museum of Health and Medicine)

Read more of our coverage of the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, which we began in 2014, HERE


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2 thoughts on ““A matter of life and death” – A reflection on the 1918-19 pandemic’s aftermath in Wilkes-Barre

  1. Jake,

    Thanks for posting this timely essay and article. Stay safe and get your vaccination as soon as you can. Too many folks are in denial and the ignorance will make things worse. I fear the Pandemic will get worse before we see the light at the end of the tunnel. Again, thanks for enlightening us.

    Sincerely,

    Tom Ansbach

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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