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Medical Failures Spread Spanish Flu

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 29, 2018

Tracing the 1918 influenza pandemic is like watching a snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger and bigger, knowing as it does it will be harder to stop. The first flu cases arrived in New York City by ship in mid-August. Officials there at first denied its existence but by the 20th conceded it had hit our shores, saying it was in a mild form that would have little effect on the population. Reassured, the nation returned to the war effort while at Camp Dix in New Jersey, there was another cause for excitement.

The Philadelphia Inquirer of Aug. 29 explained.

“A general court-martial here, probably for the first time in the history of the American Army, has pronounced sentence against an American soldier on the charge that he endeavored to persuade soldiers of an Allied country to turn traitor to their national cause. The man under sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment is Private Lawrence Martini of Wilmington, Delaware.”

It was a bizarre case involving a group of Italian soldiers who later left the Eastern front, crossed Russia and China and eventually arrived in the United States, where they were sent to Camp Dix to await their return to Europe and the Western Front.

“Department of Justice agents discovered what was apparently a concentrated plot to prevent the heroic band of Italians from returning to Italy and joining the Italian army. One arrest of a civilian was made in New York but not until recently was it generally known that an active agent had been discovered in this camp. The trial brought out evidence that Martini in conversing with the Italians spread pro-Austrian propaganda, telling certain of the Italians that the French and English victories were not true; that he could read American newspapers and that they contained no such reports.”

On Sept. 4, The New York Times reported a passenger liner landing at an Atlantic port.

“Health Officers on account of an outbreak of Spanish influenza after the vessel left France on Aug. 24, which caused the death of two Italian passengers in the steerage who were buried at sea on Monday. There were twenty-five cases in all.”

A passenger told the press, “‘I have had the old-fashioned grippe and tropical fever, but nothing that hit me quite so hard as the new Spanish influenza. It gives its victims a bad headache and a worse grouch.’ The Captain of the ship said there were a number of cases among the longshoremen and others along the waterfront at the French port whence the vessel sailed.”

Two days later the Boston Globe ran a small story on page 6.

“A warning was sent out yesterday afternoon by the State Department of Health against the spread of influenza and urging people to take measures to protect themselves. Within a week the malady has spread and more than 325 cases have been unofficially reported among the sailors on the Commonwealth Pier.

“‘Unless precautions are taken the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population of the city,’ said Dr. John S. Hitchcock, in charge of the department’s division of communicable diseases. ‘The malady appears to be in the nature of old-fashioned grippe. No deaths have occurred. The Naval medical authorities who have the matter in charge are doing everything humanly possible to control the outbreak.’”

Capt. John Edgar was the chief naval medical officer overseeing the outbreak. He was interviewed by the Globe on Sept. 10.

“The trouble, Dr. Edgar says, is not Spanish grippe or any of the fancy named brands supposed to have raged at periods abroad. … The grippe, or influenza, which every one wants to call it, he says, had the regulation symptoms of a bad cold, headache, running from the nose, bone-ache, fairly high temperature and bronchial disturbance.”

Edgar’s actions would be disastrous.

“It is not considered so contagious that it is necessary to refuse to permit the sailors not stricken liberty to visit their homes, if hereabouts, or visit the city, it was stated. As a special precaution no men are being transferred from an afflicted to a not yet afflicted station.”

Edgar was wrong. The disease was contagious. The Boston Post reported it was already spreading.

“CAMP DEVENS. Lieutenant-Colonel Channing Frothingham, commander of the base hospital, today telegraphed to the surgeon-general of the army at Washington requesting that 40 nurses and 10 doctors be added to the hospital staff for the care of influenza cases. … There are 2000 soldiers in camp affected by the malady, which only started last Monday. In three days, 600 patients were admitted to the hospital. The patients are receiving the best of treatment. … Thirteen nurses exposed to the contagion were taken down with influenza.”

Meanwhile, at Camp Dix there wasn’t any concern. The Camden Courier-Post announced on Sept. 5, “General Pershing’s birthday will be celebrated at Camp Dix on September 13 with special honors paid to American heroes who have trained for overseas service at this post. A feature of the celebration will be the formal opening of the new Y.M.C.A. hut at the base hospital, one of the most attractive buildings on the reservation. The hut will be for the use of the soldiers on duty with the hospital detachment and for convalescent patients. The interior color scheme of the various rooms was worked out by prominent New York artists.

“Despite the curfew regulations rigidly enforced by the Military Police, many of the visitors still attempt to visit friends in camp in the evening and their plight, when they find themselves shut out of camp with no lodging accommodations nearer than Trenton or Philadelphia.”

On the 12th the Courier carried an ominous warning on page 6.

“Spanish influenza, the strange prostrating malady which recently ravaged the German army and later spread into France and England with such discomforting effects on the civil population, has been brought to some of the American Atlantic coast cities, officials here fear, but they are awaiting further investigation and development before forming definite opinions.”

What did the government recommend should be done?

“Precautionary measures are considered the best weapons to combat the malady and as the disease is a new one to American physicians, the Government possibly may take the menace in hand by issuing country-wide warning and general instructions of how to avoid the infection, if possible, and how best to meet it if it be contracted.”

Unfortunately, on the same page as the warning was this: “Camp Dix will pay honor to the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces and to members of those forces who have already gone to the front from this post at a celebration of ‘Pershing’s birthday,’ to-morrow, with one of the most elaborate holiday programs yet presented here. Thousands of visitors from nearby cities are expected at the camp for the afternoon exercises when as a special compliment to Major General Scott, camp commander, soldiers from the remount station and machine gunners of the 34th Division will give demonstrations on the division athletic field.”

The next day the Trenton Times declared, “A fitting celebration of ‘Hero Day’ was staged yesterday at Dix when fully 20,000 visitors, officers and men gathered on the athletic field near … head-quarters and witnessed a stirring exhibition of riding by men from the Remount Depot and the 34th Division and a physical drill by the machine gunners who recently came from the southwest. The affair was given under the auspices of the Knights of Columbus in honor of Major-General Scott.

“The program consisted of a number of events and the feats of the horsemen brought rounds of applause especially the bucking horse contest in which spirited animals were ridden.”

The Allies were pushing the Germans back on the Western front, but on the home front, the influenza snowball was about to roll over the entire country.

Next Week: Gargle or die!


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