space holder

The Flu of 1918 (continued)    

Philadelphia, October 17: 1,686 new cases, 711 deaths.
   The city's hospitals are placed under police supervision, with patrol cars serving as ambulances. The Red Cross Home Service, besieged by servicemen overseas for information about their families, frequently sends no reply. The families do not wish them to know their loved ones have died.
   Countless deeds of charity help rescue the forgotten members of society -- the destitute, the orphaned, the retarded, and the friendless. Sisters of the Holy Child comfort and care for youngsters in a West Philadelphia home for "backward children" after all the staff have fled. Emergency Aid members visit shabby boarding houses where hundreds lie ill with no one to assist them and arrange for their care.
   A man who sneezed is forcibly ejected from a trolley by his fellow passengers.
   Little girls jump rope to a grim new rhyme:
    I had a little bird
   And its name was Enza
   I opened the door
   And in-flew-Enza.
   
   At Penn, football games with Swarthmore and the Marines are canceled. The Christian Association issues an urgent call for more student volunteers.
   
Philadelphia, October 20: 1,334 new cases, 606 deaths.
   
Philadelphians note the latest count in reported cases. Is the epidemic waning?
   Dr. Franklin Royer, acting Pennsylvania Commissioner of Health, says no: "For a five-year period, the state's daily average death rate in October from influenza,la grippe, and pneumonia combined is less than 30. Yet Philadelphia continues to report hundreds of deaths daily."
   Dr. J. Solis-Cohen says yes: "The progress of the influenza epidemic should be noted from the number of new cases and not from the number of deaths."
   Dr. Solis-Cohen is right.
   As quickly as the epidemic had come, it left.
   Churches reopened on October 27 in Philadelphia. Schools, theaters, vaudeville houses, and bars followed in quick succession.
   Penn's Dental School reopened. Delta Psi house and Phi Kappa Psi house, used as emergency hospitals, became a barracks and a naval officers' mess hall, respectively. Penn student volunteers returned to their studies.
   The passage of the "Spanish Lady" through the streets of Philadelphia left in its wake 12,191 reported deaths and 47,094 reported cases in four weeks and a business community crippled by revenue-losses in the millions. Among Penn's 5,000 students, there had been four deaths and 312 cases reported.
   World War I killed 15 million people in four years; the Spanish flu killed perhaps twice that number worldwide in six months. It killed more Americans than all combat deaths of this century combined. No other disease has killed so many so fast. Yet the collective amnesia regarding the pandemic is astonishing. Today most Americans know more about the Black Death of medieval times than they do about the 1918 flu.
   One question still haunts medical science: Where did the virus come from and where did it go after 1918? Some believe that a mild hog flu virus combined with an equally mild Pfeiffer bacillus in a synergetic process, producing a killer that injured human lungs beyond their capacity to recover -- but no one knows for certain.


  Eileen A. Lynch is a writer and editor. She was formerly a research specialist in epidemiology at Penn and later a senior writer in Development Communications. This account is based primarily on contemporary newspaper accounts of the epidemic's progress in the city and on the Penn campus.
  
November/December Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 10/28/98