THIS IS the flu season, and there is misery enough to go around. The flu can be life-threatening to some, but the vast majority of us suffer it ungladly, returning to normal life after a week or so of aches and sniffles.
In the 19th century and early part of this century, though, flu was a real killer. In the 1918 flu epidemic, Baltimore had the grisly honor of being second only to Philadelphia in number of deaths per thousand residents. Seven of every 1,000 Baltimoreans who contracted the flu -- the young and the old, the rich and the poor -- died from it in a matter of weeks. Hundreds of people died at the height of the epidemic -- 804 in one record day. Undertakers couldn't bury the dead quickly enough.
John C. Blake, the health commissioner, issued a warning: "It is of the greatest importance that people protect their throats and noses. I urge persons who are not well to stay at home and get medical attention."
"Medical attention" 73 years ago was partly what it is today: hot tea and cough syrups, some brands more effective (and more reputable) than others. Some people wore cubes of camphor around their necks. Many stormed the pharmacies for whatever medicine the overworked pharmacists could come up with.
The harried health commissioner confessed that in desperation he had arranged for the city to put plainclothes policemen on the streetcars to enforce no-smoking rules. The commissioner believed that the flu was spread in the cigarette smoke of the infected. (In 1918, people were actually arrested for smoking in public places.) The commissioner also ordered that streetcar tokens be bathed daily in antiseptic solutions.
During the winter of 1917 and 1918, many Baltimore institutions were shut down -- erratically and apparently chaotically. For days at a time, all public schools closed. So did movie houses, concert halls, nightclubs, theaters, churches and even Oriole Park. (Orioles' owner Jack Dunn pleaded with Blake to let the Birds play. He was turned down.) Hundreds of homeless people with the flu were treated at an emergency hospital at 506 West Lexington St.
Why was the earlier epidemic so much more life-threatening? Dr. Solomon Snyder, professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, explains it this way: "To begin with, we know from studies that the 1918 flu was a much more virulent strain of the virus. And it hit at a time when there were no antibiotics to deal with superimposed bacterial infections, which is what most people who contract the flu typically die from.
"The flu today is a less virulent strain coming at a time when we have antibiotics. But the truth is we have absolutely no scientific knowledge to tell us why one strain of flu is so much more dangerous than another. Flu epidemics remain mysterious."