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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: A pandemic a century ago years ago

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF HEALTH AND MEDICINE PHOTO

During the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, an emergency hospital was set up at Camp Funston, the Fort Riley outpost from which many Marion County soldiers mustered into and out of World War I.

An illustration accompanying an article entitled “Uncle Sam’s advice on flu,” in the Marion Review of Oct. 23, 1918, compared the Spanish influenza pandemic to World War I atrocities while advertising touted the value of various elixirs and supposed remedies that had become in short supply.

The Great War — regarded as the “war to end all wars” until 20 years later it was rechristened World War I — was about to end. The first of a series of ceasefires was set to be signed Nov. 11, 1918.

Yet an even more deadly battle was sweeping the globe even as peace was at long last about to break out on battlefields.

From Sept. 1, 1918, through May 1, 1919, what became known as the Spanish influenza pandemic sickened one-third of the world’s population, killing an estimated 50 million.

In Marion County alone, health officials reported at the time, 2,739 people came down with the H1N1 flu virus (the same virus that caused swine flu in 2009)and 115 of them died.

Much of the impact hereabouts was first noted at Camp Funston, a Fort Riley outpost where dozens of local men were mustered into and out of military service.

After the flu began spreading into the general population, a mass quarantine was ordered for the entire county for several weeks in October. Even after it was lifted, certificates of health from physicians were required before students could rejoin their classes at school.

“More people have died of influenza and complications thereof in the United States in the last three weeks than we have lost on the battlefields of France in the 18 months of the war,” Marion County health officer J.J. Entz wrote on October 1918 column in the Marion Review, which later merged with the Record. “We all dislike war and become excited about it because a loved one had to sacrifice his life for liberty. How much more should we be alert to conditions in our control as to contagious diseases that have taken such toll on us.”

Newspapers of the period were filled with social tidbits like these from the Review’s Oursler corresponded on Oct. 17, 1918:

“Geo. Bower has the influenza but is getting better at this writing. Kenneth Clark is getting well now. Arthur Ebrights have the influenza in their family.”

The same issue contained a lengthy article, “Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu,” accompanied by what for the time was a rare illustration entitled: “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases as dangerous as poison gas shells.”

By Oct. 31, the Review was filled with influenza news:

“Harry Clark’s cousin, Mrs. Dole of Dole’s Park, died last week with influenza.

“Mrs. Ashford of Wren has been quite sick with influenza.

“Mrs. Mary Pritz passed away at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. P.A. Jernberg, last Tuesday having developed pneumonia after an attack of influenza. Mrs. P.A. Jernberg is able to be out again after an attack of pneumonia.

“Private Henry Stoewe is visiting home folks on furlough. He is recuperating after an attack of influenza.”

Despite the seriousness, some items even took a playful tone:

“Floyd Collinge and wife and Ernest Ambrose and wife entertained the influenza last week.”

The next week, even more stories of local sufferers appeared, but the outlook seemed to brighten:

“Mrs. W.C. Hereford and Miss Jennie, who have been influenza patients this week, are improving nicely.

“Mrs. S.L. Brose and Leo have been influenza patients this week. Leo has been very sick but is now improving.

“Mrs. U.S. McBride, who has been confined to her home with the influenza for over a week, is now improving.

“Mayor Josiah Good, who has been having the influenza, is better.

“Little Josephine Bess Rogers has been an influenza patient this week but is getting along nicely.

“Misses Vinnie and Bess Wible and Mrs. Vern Kuhn are all influenza patients this week but are getting along nicely. Miss Ola Yost has been taking care of them.”

But the news wasn’t universally good:

“Mrs. C.C. McCormac received word this week of the death of her brother, of Bedford, Penn., from influenza.

“Miss Grace Rutledge came home from Nickerson, where she is teaching, Friday, her school having been closed on account of the influenza until after the holidays.

“Miss Ada Claney, bookkeeper at The Grand, was called home to Lincolnville Wednesday as her parents, Mr. and Mrs. C.C. Claney, and her sister and hubands, Mr. and Mrs. F.C. Stinchcomb, were all sick with influenza.”

A series of very large advertisements masquerading as news stories apologized for a sudden shortage of Vick’s VapoRub.

“In addition to the uusual method of using VapoRub — that is, applied over the throat and chest and covered with hot flannel cloths — our customers are writing us daily telling of their success in using VapoRub in other ways, particularly as a preventative,” the ad claimed. “They melt a little in a spoon and inhale the vapors arising or melt it in a benzoin steam kettle. . . . Just keep the kettle slowly boiling and inhale the steam arising.”

Best medical advice of the day actually called for coating the nose and throat with an oily substance, the ad contended.

“Just put a little up through the nostrils from time to time and snuff well back into the air passages.”

Another ad at the time touted the supposedly curative effects of Hill’s Cascara-Bromide-Quinine, in tablet form with no opiates, which it said relieved grip (another name for Spanish flu in those days) within three days.

“An old enemy is with us again,” yet another ad began, “and whether we fight a German or a germ, we must put up a good fight and not be afraid.”

This ad, for something called Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets, advocated what it called
“the three C’s — a clean mouth, a clean skin, and clean bowels.”

“To carry off poisons from the system and keep the bowels loose, daily doses of a pleasant laxative should be taken,” the ad went on, and Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets had the right name for the job.

As Christmas came and passed, the number of new cases each week began to drop, but it wasn’t until warm weather returned in May that the pandemic seemed over — at least for the time.

There still were fears, which proved largely unfounded, that the disease might return the following fall.

“A sharp lookout should be maintained,” Entz wrote. “It will be everybody’s duty where a case occurs to send the patient home and report it to the nearest physician.”

Last modified March 19, 2020

 

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