Posts Tagged ‘disease’


At first, parents thought their children had been playing too hard. They developed fevers and some of them got headaches. They symptoms would pass, though, but then a few days later, the children would being to get stiff necks or backs. Some would experience constipation. If they were lucky, that is all that would happen.

Unfortunately, not all the children were lucky. Some of them would be playing and fall over unable to use their legs or arms. Others would wake up in the morning unable to move. A few even died unable to breathe.

The disease was called infant paralysis in 1918, though it is now better known as polio. The epidemic in Franklin County, PA, began in Waynesboro, PA, in June 1918 and continued through the fall. Forty-six cases were reported in the county with six children dying because of the disease. Chambersburg had 15 of those case and two deaths.

Though polio has been around for centuries, major epidemics weren’t seen until the early 20th Century when they began to appear in Europe and the United States.

Polio damages the nerve cells, which affects a person’s muscle control. Without nerve stimulation, the muscles weaken and atrophy. This can lead to paralysis and if the muscles that help the body breathe are affected, the paralysis can cause death because a patient is unable to breathe.

Two years prior to the Franklin County epidemic, there had been more than 27,000 cases of polio in the United States resulting in more than 6,000 deaths.

The first line of defense in fighting polio was to quarantine homes where there were outbreaks of polio and the families had to place placards in their windows as a notice of the quarantine.

Sometimes it would go further. An infant girl of the H. H. Harrison family in Guilford Township was stricken with polio in September 1918. Though she was not in serious condition, “She has eight brothers and sisters all at home and all attending school in Guilford. The school will be ordered closed today by Health Officer Kinter. The home will be will be quarantined today,” the Chambersburg Public Opinion reported.

Sanitary and hygiene campaigns were undertaken to encourage people to drink and bathe in clean water. Better hygiene meant that not only was it less likely a child, or even an adult would develop polio, but also more likely that the symptoms would be mild. However, this also meant that it was more likely that older children would develop polio and it would be the harsher, paralyzing form.

Little more could be done because doctors of the time were uncertain just what polio was and it was decades before a vaccine would be developed.

A 1916 article in the New York Times outlined the problem that doctors faced, noting “fighting infantile paralysis consists largely in doing everything that seems effective in the hope that some of the measures taken will be effective.”

Tony Gould wrote in A Summer Plague: Polio and Its Survivors about some of the treatments used at the time to unsuccessfully cure polio. Doctors would “Give oxygen through the lower extremities, by positive electricity. Frequent baths using almond meal, or oxidising the water. Applications of poultices of Roman chamomile, slippery elm, arnica, mustard, cantharis, amygdalae dulcis oil, and of special merit, spikenard oil and Xanthoxolinum. Internally use caffeine, Fl. Kola, dry muriate of quinine, elixir of cinchone, radium water, chloride of gold, liquor calcis and wine of pepsin.”

Unfortunately for Franklin County, residents had just begun to breathe a sigh of relief from the infantile paralysis epidemic to deal with an even greater threat called the Spanish Flu.

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In many municipalities, people covered their faces to try and avoid infection from the flu.

Through November of 1918, the cases, and more importantly deaths, from Spanish Flu decreased. People started breathing a sigh of relief without it going through a surgical mask. Then Adams County then suffered what only a few places around the country saw, a second spike in the flu.

By the end of October, the Gettysburg Times was reporting that 23,000 Pennsylvanians had died from the flu. That represents roughly ¼ of 1 percent of the state’s population that died in one month and the month still had five days left in it when this was reported.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the flu peaked in Philadelphia during the week of Oct. 16. On that day, not that week, 700 Philadelphians died. Pittsburgh saw its peak three weeks later. So Adams County most likely saw its peak somewhere in between.

The emergency hospital at Xavier Hall in Gettysburg lifted its quarantine at the end of the October and by this point 148 people who had been sent there had died.

Residents were confused about the flu, which only added to their fear of it. The way Spanish Flu struck across the county was inconsistent. The Halloween parade in Gettysburg was cancelled, but the bans on public gatherings were slowly being lifted.

The second wave of Spanish Flu hit particularly hard in the Fairfield area and the eastern part of the county. One doctor was quoted in the Star and Sentinel as saying, “I have just come from four homes. Three or four people were sick in every one of them. One of the families had both parents and the two children ill. I have another family in which there were six cases.”

Reports said the second outbreak wasn’t as pervasive, but it could still be deadly. This is typical of locations where there was a second outbreak.

Adams County moved into the 1918 Christmas season cautiously. Dr. B. F. Royer told the Gettysburg Times, “With the approach of the holiday season too much stress cannot be laid on the necessity of avoiding crowding in the stores, many of which are poorly ventilated.”

Christmas 1918 was somber. A lot of people had lost someone they knew to the flu. Officials urged people to do their shopping early when fewer people would be in the stores. Church Christmas programs were cancelled for fear of having too many people in a confined space.

The Compiler reported that the Stoner Brothers died within 24 hours of each other. They were farmers who had been married for two years and were both in their mid-20s.

The Gettysburg Times reported that Charles Walter who had been sick for two weeks with the flu died on January 2 at home of his parents just before they had to leave for the funeral of their daughter who had died earlier from flu.

The Gettysburg Times reported another unusual case associated with Spanish Flu in 1919. A man named Roy Dice said he had caught the flu, survived and Dr. Swan told him he could start sitting up. Dice began to feel pains in his leg. It quickly swelled up and turned blue. Then gangrene set in and he wound up having his leg amputated.

By January 18, 160 soldiers had died from the flu, most of them at Camp Colt, according to the Star and Sentinel. In Gettysburg, 19 people died and four in Cumberland, Straban, Freedom, Highland townships. This is incorrect simply from counting the obituaries. It may simply be the number of people who were listed as dying specifically from the flu. However, pneumonia deaths at this time were from a complication from contracting the Spanish Flu, and these deaths were roughly equal to those who died from the flu.

Even using the low numbers, Gettysburg’s population was 4,600 at the time. This represents roughly 4 percent of population dying in just a few months.


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An emergency hospital filled with Spanish Flu patients. This shot was not taken in Gettysburg, but Gettysburg had similar hospitals.

Though it was a different war and a different century, Gettysburg found itself once again occupied by an army. Young men were sent there to learn to fight the Germans in World War I.

They trained to fight the enemy using a piece of state-of-the-art military technology called the tank. The problem was that no one could see the enemy that they were fighting in Gettysburg. It moved indiscriminately through camps and communities injuring and killing men, women, soldier, children. It made no difference.

Before Spanish Flu disappeared, it had killed about 50 million people worldwide or more than four times the population of Pennsylvania.

A factor that played into the spread of the flu and how deadly it was that the U.S. was cramming soldiers into military camps all across the country. The closeness of the quarters helped the flu spread and with more young men contracting the flu than normal, deaths among that age group also increased.

This helped contribute to the W-shaped death curve of the flu. Generally, when flu is fatal, it is with the youngest and oldest in the population, those whose immune systems are weakest. Spanish Flu’s death curve also spiked in the middle with 20-30 year olds, giving it a W shape.

During the first week of the outbreak, no mention was made of the problem in the local newspapers. Yet, the problem was growing. It had already reached epidemic status in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia by Oct. 4.

A headline in The Compiler in early October proclaimed, “The Answer to the Scourge is a Demonstration by Community to Flight It to the Limit. Never has Gettysburg been so stirred as by the scourge of Influenza. Never has the heart of the town been so wrung as by the scourge carrying off the soldier boys who as answered their country’s call in defense of her principles.” This announcement seemingly came out of nowhere since the paper hadn’t been reporting on the buildup to what was a health problem in the county.

Father W.F. Boyle offered Xavier Hall as a hospital. Father Boyle believed that it would be easier to control the flu if you could isolate the sick from the healthy. It was a good idea, but it was too late. Sixty-four cots were set up in the hall as it was transformed into an emergency hospital that quickly filled up.

Prof. Lamond, director of the local Red Cross, sent for nurses to care for the sick. In a show of community spirit, Mrs. Burton Alleman of Littlestown had schoolchildren canvass the town for donations for the hospital. They raised $100 and collected 59 water bottles, 10 fountain syringes, 15 ice caps, 500 sputum cups and 25 serving trays.

Two days after the hospital opened, county schools were closed, which was a common defense against the Spanish Flu. It was also announced that in less than two weeks, 92 soldiers had died at Camp Colt.

By Oct. 12, The Compiler, which had proclaimed that the flu was abating locally just a few days before, now said that it was the “most heartrending epidemic the town has ever been through. … Distress has pervaded the hearts of our people but around this dark cloud is the glow of the wonderful demonstration of our people in town and country and nearby places.”

Warnings were issued and sick families quarantined. Some people even took to wearing surgical masks.

Camp Colt now had 100 dead soldiers. This was one out every six soldiers at the camp and many of the 500 remaining were sick with the flu.

Several of the nurses caring for the soldiers in the emergency hospitals contracted the flu and wound up becoming patients themselves. One of the nurse aides died and even Prof. Lamond caught the flu.

This is one of the insidious ways that the Spanish Flu worked. Many communities were already shorthanded medically because doctors had been drafted to serve in WWI. As the remaining doctors became overwhelmed with their additional workload, many of them caught the flu. The remaining doctors found themselves working longer hours with contagious people. This would wear them down and make them susceptible to flu and the process would repeat.

The dead soldiers were taken to the Grand Army of the Republic Hall in town until arrangements could be made to ship their bodies home. As each body was taken to the train depot, it was given a military escort. This must have been a depressing sight for residents to see 100 times as each soldier was taken to the train that would return him home.

Half of the front page of the newspapers was taken up with obituaries of people who died from the flu.

George Pretz was the author of the lyrics for the Gettysburg College fight song. He was also an army doctor who died in Syracuse. When his wife, Carrie, heard he was sick, she started up to New York, but she didn’t arrive until after he had died. His brother-in-law, Edgar Tawney, “went to Hanover on Monday for flowers and while sitting in an automobile was stricken and being brought home died early Tuesday morning.”

A similar story to this one is that George Stravig, his son, brother and sister all died within a week of each other because of the flu.

By mid-October, all pretense of optimism was gone. A Gettysburg Times headline proclaimed: “Death’s Harvest Still Continues.”

Then a week later, the reports were suddenly upbeat. The Times declared that the flu was all but gone from Camp Colt.

But the Spanish Flu wasn’t done with Adams County yet.




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1918-flu-pandemic So it seems like everyone lately has the flu. Schools are sending warnings home to parents. Hospitals are telling patients with the flu not to come in. The Centers for Disease Control has said that is has hit epidemic level.

So how bad can it get?

The worst to date has been the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. It left about 50 million dead after just a couple months. I wrote about it in my novel October Mourning. I’ve also written about half a dozen articles about it and given a couple talks about it.I continue to be fascinated (scared?) by it.

It killed more people than World War I and in a shorter time frame, too, yet the war had the headlines during 1918. It was estimated that 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu or 10 times more than died in the war.

It killed more people in one year than the Black Plague did in 4 years.

It was so devastating that human life span was reduced by 10 years in 1918.

CopsHere’s how it was described. One physician wrote that patients rapidly “develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen” and later when cyanosis appeared in patients “it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate.” Another doctor said that the influenza patients “died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their mouth and nose.”

Public meetings were cancelled. Street cars and other public transportation had to travel with windows open. Plus, you couldn’t spit on the street and needed to use a handkerchief when you cough or sneeze or face a fine in many places.

It wasn’t that the flu was particularly deadly. It was about 10 times deadlier than the average flu, or rather, it had a 2.5 percent mortality rate according to one report I read. While deadly for flu, there are diseases with a much-higher mortality rate. The thing about those diseases is that they usually aren’t that contagious. I’ve read that the Spanish Flu struck half of the world’s population.

So turn it into a math problem.

A disease like ebola kills about 50 percent of those who get it, but there were only something like 21,000 cases last year. So the chances of you catching ebola, much less dying from it were unlikely.

However, Spanish Flu killed 2.5 percent of those who got it and you had a 50 percent chance of catching it. That means 15 out of every 1000 people in the world, regardless of whether they caught the flu or not, died.

Doctors and nurses, who were exposed more frequently to sick patients, caught the flu. Many died, leaving a heavier burden on those behind. They found themselves at even a greater risk of exposure.

Medical personnel weren’t the only ones affected. Trains struggled to run on time because of sick personnel. Few operators meant that fewer calls were getting through.

StreetcarUndertakers couldn’t keep up with the demand for new graves. Yet, in many places the ground was frozen so the bodies had to be stored in piles in some towns.

Then the flu season ended and fewer cases were reported. There was a bit of a resurgence in early 1919, but the flu had already started mutating. The new form wasn’t as contagious, and by the fall, the flu was back to being just something that kept people home from work or school for a few days.

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