the spanish flu devastates DC -- 4/3/19

Today's selection -- from Pandemic 1918 by Catherine Arnold. In 1918, a Spanish flu epidemic, sometimes referred to as "la grippe" or the "Spanish lady," careened around the world, taking 20 to 50 million lives in its path, including 675,000 Americans. The excerpt below tells what happened as it first reached Washington, DC:

"When Louis Brownlow, City Commissioner for Washington, DC, was informed that forty patients had been admitted to one hospital with 'la grippe' on 2 October, he took instant action. Brownlow knew that 202 Bostonians had died of influenza the day before; he was anxious to prevent a similar epidemic in Washington. Commissioner Brownlow shut down Washington, DC, closing schools, theaters, pool halls and bars. Medical centres were opened in empty schools and an emergency hospital in a store on F Street, supervised by Dr James P. Leake, an epidemiologist. With no shortage of resources in wealthy Washington, Model T Fords and chauffeur-driven limousines were pressed into service as ambulances. Brownlow, with his two fellow commissioners already sick, took responsibility for the city, as Dr Noble P. Barnes of the American Therapeutic Society publicly declared: 'Persons at large sneezing and coughing should be treated as a dangerous menace to the community, properly fined, imprisoned, and compelled to wear masks until they are educated out of the 'Gesundheit!' and 'God Bless You' rot.' The Red Cross distributed gauze face masks, and advertisements
warned the public:

Obey the laws
And wear the gauze
Protect your jaws
From septic paws.

"But the Spanish Lady was not so easily defeated. The sick-list swiftly rose to over ten thousand. Hundreds of police officers and trolley drivers fell ill. So many firemen were sick that the capital's Fire Marshall feared 'the whole city'd burn to the ground if a fire ever got started'. The Federal government was paralysed and the courts went into recess. At Herbert Hoover's Food Administration, half the employees went off sick. Congress dosed its public galleries and at the State Department staff were 'aired' for twenty minutes every day, taken outside and instructed to breathe deeply. As he studied Washington's mortality figures at the Vital Statistics Bureau, a clerk named W. E. Turton collapsed and died. The Washington Evening Star ran a regular column entitled 'Prominent People Who Have Died of Influenza'.

"One famous person who refused to die of influenza or even entertain the notion of falling victim to the disease was humourist James Thurber. Writing a letter in reply to a concerned friend on 15 October 1918, Thurber described the mood in Washington in his typically irreverent style: 'All one sees here is nurses & hearses and all he hears is curses and worse. And such a heroic thing to pass out with, Influenza!' Dying of influenza in these times of brave, poetical deaths ... I'd just as soon go with house-maid's KNEE.' Thurber maintained he was in 'chipper' condition, with the correct psychological attitude towards all flu. 'The influx of Enza will have to select a clever rapier and twist an adroit write [sic] to pink me, altho' I am in the pink of condition.'

The influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 (Library of Congress)

"Eleanor Roosevelt, who had returned to Washington with Franklin and their family, witnessed the horror at first-hand:

As soon as we returned to Washington the 'flu epidemic, which had been raging in various parts of the country, struck us with full force. The city was fearfully overcrowded, the departments had had to expand and take on great numbers of clerical workers. New bureaus had been set up, girls were living two and three to a room all over the city, and when the 'flu hit there were naturally not enough hospitals to accommodate those who were stricken. The Red Cross organized temporary hospitals in every available building, and those of us who could were asked to bring food to these various units, which often had no kitchen space at all.

Before I knew it, all my five children and my husband were down with the 'flu, and three of the servants. We succeeded in getting one trained nurse from New York ... this nurse was put in charge of Elliott [aged eight years old] who had double pneumonia. My husband was moved into a little room next to mine, and John, the baby, had his crib in my bedroom, for he had bronchial pneumonia. There was little difference between day and night for me, and Dr Hardin, who worked as hard as he possibly could every minute of the time, came in once or twice a day and looked over all my patients. He remarked that we were lucky that some of us were still on our feet, for he had families with nobody able to stand up.

"Despite the constant anxiety for her own family, Eleanor tried to take the opportunity to do some good in Washington: 'If all the children were asleep I went in the car and visited the Red Cross."



Catharine Arnold


Pandemic 1918


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2018 by Catharine Arnold


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