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Byline: Carol Bidwell

Staff Writer

It was called the Spanish Influenza, even though nobody knows exactly where it originated.

But the epidemic that swept around the world 90 years ago, killing as many as 50million people in 1918-19, cut the widest path of death since the Black Plague in the 1300s.

The especially virulent strain of flu hit the United States in fall 1918, just as local soldiers were being shipped home from the European battlefields of World War I. The flu -- often called "la grippe" in those days -- at first seemed to be just another winter illness.

Communities celebrated the doughboys' return, then people began to fall ill and a few died. There was a lull of a few months with no new cases reported, then more soldiers came home, and the flu took hold again, hitting even harder this time.

As deaths began to mount, Los Angeles health officials realized this terrible illness was much worse than ordinary flu and seemed to spread in the wake of the postwar festivities.

"The celebration of the peace on Nov. 11th, in which the streets were jammed with people, is given as the cause for the increase of new cases," said a story in the Van Nuys News on Nov.22, 1918.

The newfound plague, local medical experts speculated, "was introduced into the city by sailors from a ship which arrived at San Pedro Harbor."

Later, after the returning soldiers began to get sick, too, the doctors realized that they most likely had brought the illness home with them. And because Spain was the only European country whose newspapers had not been silenced by the war and reported on the illness in Europe, health officials worldwide called it the Spanish Influenza.

By that time, 300 to 400 new cases were being reported weekly in and near Los Angeles, and deaths were in the double and triple digits.

It was the same in other cities, leading U.S. Surgeon General Victor Vaughan to a frightening conclusion. "If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration," he said, "civilization could easily disappear from the face of the Earth within a few weeks."

Los Angeles officials acted quickly. On the advice of health officials, the City Council closed down schools, churches, theaters and pool halls; banned football games and practices; and declared auctions and all entertainment "forbidden in public places."

They OK'd spending $5,900 to set up an emergency hospital to accommodate 200 flu patients who had no one to care for them.

Funerals, officials decreed, must be private until further notice, attended only by immediate family members and pallbearers.

And, in a move that was to hit the fledgling movie industry hard, Police Chief John L. Butler banned all filming of movie "mob scenes" and decreed that the usual crowds that gathered to watch movies being made on public streets be immediately dispersed.

There was talk of forcing all residents to wear surgical masks when venturing outside their homes, but that plan was abandoned in the face of vocal opposition.

While the Valley newspaper in December 1918 declared, "There are few bad cases (of flu) and there have been no deaths," a month later it was running a front-page column headlined simply "Recent Deaths."

One of the first entries: "Infant child dies; parents sick with influenza." It told of the death of the 2-day-old baby of Mr. and Mrs. T.S. Sanderson of Burbank (he owned Central Meat Market), and of both parents being so ill with the flu, a funeral for the child could not be scheduled.

One of the first Van Nuys residents to die from the flu was Dr. R.H. Becker, 27, a newly arrived veterinarian with a wife and a 15-month-old child about to leave Fort Collins, Colo., to join him in the Valley. He caught flu, then pneumonia, then -- less than a week later -- he was dead.

The list of names of the dead continued: B.F. Shannon, a Valley businessman; Leona Harris Myers, a former Van Nuys teacher; Claudius J. Cachlits, a local boy in military school. A.G. Sennewald, a Standard Oil Co. worker in Van Nuys who had recently transferred to Palmdale, "is very ill with the influenza and little hope is held for his recovery," the newspaper solemnly noted.

The illness -- for which there was no vaccine and no medical cure -- had arrived suddenly, and it was gone just as suddenly. The number of local cases began to decrease, then one week, there were no new cases. The nightmare was over.

But the illness -- now believed to have originated either in an Army camp in Kansas, the trenches of French battlefields, or even in China -- had done its worst. The World Health Organization would later describe the 1918-19 flu epidemic as "the most deadly disease event in the history of humanity."

Among U.S. soldiers who fought in World War I, about 53,000 died from battle wounds, while 57,000 died from the flu, according to government figures.

Unlike traditional flu, those infected with Spanish Influenza displayed sudden symptoms of fever, piercing headaches and joint pain. Those who died generally had been ill only two to three days; many were healthy in the morning and dead by nightfall. Autopsies revealed that the lungs of the dead, usually light and elastic, were heavy and filled with bloody fluid.

In short, flu victims suffocated.

Worldwide, that aberrant illness infected an estimated 500 million people; death rates varied geographically. In the then-wide open spaces of Los Angeles, deaths in 1919 -- the second half of the epidemic -- totaled 3,184, or less than 1 percent of the city's population. In New York City, where many lived in crowded tenements, the death toll during the same period was nearly 33,400, or more than 15 percent of city residents, according to the World Health Organization.



2 photos


(1) Nurses tend patients during the 1918-19 influenza epidemic at Camp Funston, Kan., not far from Camp Riley, one of the spots the flu is believed to have first been transmitted by soldiers. The World Health Organization later described the epidemic as "the most deadly disease event in the history of humanity."

Photos courtesy of National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology

(2) Military personnel escort the coffin of a soldier who died of influenza at an embarkation camp in Bordeaux, France. Of the thousands killed in World War I, more died from the flu than from combat injuries, according to military sources.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:ST
Date:Mar 26, 2008

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