People who lived through it could tell you what researchers have recently confirmed. The 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic was deadly because a group of three genes in the flu virus allowed it to invade deep into the lungs and open the door to pneumonia.
In some instances bacteria can cause pneumonia but in this case flu was the direct cause.
Spanish flu killed 2.5 percent, compared to 1 percent in a usual flu season. The victims were often otherwise healthy who fell to severe pneumonia.
The flu virus mutates often which is why you don’t have immunity from season to season. It remains to be seen how serious the current Swine flu concern will be.
In 1918 first wonder drugs were almost two decades in the future. Sulfanilamide and Penicillin were not a part of the regular medical tool kit until the World War II era and later.
Home remedies like lemon juice and malted milk could only do so much.
Victims would complain of fever, sore throat, sensitivity to light, headache and a feeling like they “had been beaten all over with a club.”
With armies moving around the world during the First World War, living in close quarters, it was a recipe for concentrating and spreading the disease.
There was plenty of warning on the Central Coast of the gathering storm.
An outbreak had flared up at Fort Riley Kansas in March then things were quiet for a while.
At the end of summer the disease would spread across the eastern seaboard.
August – Boston
October – Philadelphia and New York
The crime rate in Chicago fell 43 percent. Even criminals got the flu.
More than once a health commissioner would predict that their city was safe from epidemic only to have the reality crash around them a few days later.
In September a San Francisco health official predicted that flu would not reach them.
By October 15 there were 1,200 reported cases of influenza and the city was contemplating closing public places.
The Daily Telegram had been covering the situation with stories on the inside pages with chipper headlines like this October 1 gem:
GOT THE FLU?
WHAT TO DO
The advice was much the same as today. Protect your nose and mouth in the presence of sneezers, avoid crowds, and don’t get scared. The tabloid had a breezy style under the leadership of C.L Day. Under the nameplate was the slogan “There may be a better climate than San Luis Obispo’s–but not on earth.”
As the situation became more serious the story moved to the front page complete with a typesetting error in the headline.
October 12, 1918
Eighteen Cases of Spanish
Influenza in this City that
Haue So Far Been Reported
…she gave a stirring appeal for nurses for Cantonment work in a talk given before the Boosters Club on Tuesday evening. Mrs. Williston will leave on Monday for San Francisco where she will report for immediate duty. Her years of hospital work will eminently fit her for a field of work in which she is particularly proficient.
In Phillidelphia hundreds of bodies remained unburied. Undertakers could not keep up and volunteers were requested to dig graves.
The health board was trying to quell fears a few days later.
October 15, 1918:
HEALTH BOARD SAYS
THERE IS LITTLE “FLU” HERE
Dr. L.T. Wade and E. D. Sworthout were appointed members of the City Board of Health at a meeting of the City Council held late yesterday afternoon.
The board is now composed of Commissioner of Public Health and Safety Dr. H.A.Gowman, Dr. H.S. Walters, E.A. Swarthout, Dr. L.T. Wade and Acting Health Officer F.E.Cook.
A meeting of the board was held this morning and Dr. Walters was elected secretary.
Reports from physicians indicate that there is very little influenza in the city most of the suspected cases being simple colds.
There is no prospect of schools, theaters or other public meetings being suspended unless the disease develops a more serious aspect in the city than at present.
October 19, 1918
HEALTH BOARD ISSUES CLOSING ORDER
EVERYTHING EXCEPT SCHOOLS UNDER HEALTH BOARD BAN
Johnnie may sleep late tomorrow morning. He don’t need to get up in time to get to Sunday school on time for the reason that there will be no Sunday school. Neither will dad have to find an excuse for staying at home from church because there will be no church services held in this city.
Likewise there will be no picture show tomorrow or tomorrow night or until such time as the ban shall be lifted.
The board of health met this morning and decided to order all churches, places of amusement, lodges and indoor meetings of all kinds discontinued until further notice. The single exception is city schools. As stated yesterday, members of the board believe the children are better off in school than out.
The order includes pool rooms, bowling allies, card rooms, clubs, lodges, theaters, churches, dances and gatherings of any kind indoors.
The law will be rigidly enforced as will the law against spitting on sidewalks and floors and stairways of buildings.
October 21, 1918
The first influenza death was reported on the front page.
MRS. A.K. HARDIE
DEAD AT PASO ROBLES
Former resident Succumbs to Pneumonia
Following Attack of Influenza;
Mrs. Leonora W. Hardie, wife of Angus Kirk Hardie, died last night at Paso Robles of pneumonia following influenza. Mrs. Hardie had been ill but a few days but the action of the disease was unusually rapid.
She was the daughter of Mrs. Mary L. Wallace and the late A.D. Wallace and sister of Mrs. Agnes Harrison, Mrs. Mabel Bartlett, Mrs. Roy Hardie and of AD Wallace Jr. of this city. Mrs. Hardie was a native of Sonoma county and 46 years of age. She was well known in this city having resided here many years.
Funeral will be held tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the home in Paso Robles. Rev. Mitchell of the Christian church will conduct the services.
Spanish Influenza had arrived on the Central Coast.
Links to other stories in the series: