Think this flu's bad?

December 13, 1993|By Joan Whitson Wallace

BALTIMORE and surrounding Army training camps 75 years ago became primary players in a horror tale that rivals a modern Stephen King plot. Soldiers at Camp Meade were dying. The body count was 60 to 90 young men and boys a day.

The Sun on Oct. 9, 1918, report ed the previous 33 hours as particularly grueling, with the city recording 117 deaths, Camp Meade 64 deaths and Fort McHenry 12 deaths.

The world was embroiled in World War I. At the same time, it was fighting a losing battle with a major flu epidemic. In the four-month period between September 1918 and January 1919, Spanish Influenza killed about 21 million people worldwide. Not since the Black Plague had there been a greater human tragedy. The United States lost well over a half-million people.

Compare the 1918 flu victim count to the estimates of the world's current epidemic, AIDS. The World Health Organization calculates that 14 million people have been infected with the HIV virus since it was first discovered 19 years ago. That's 14 million people infected in 19 years, compared with 21 million deaths in four months in the 1918 plague.

The origin of the flu was never determined, but Spain took the blame after an initial outbreak in Madrid. In mid-September, newspaper articles said New York officials believed the "Huns" had spread germs in the U.S., using German agents put ashore from a submarine.

Little wonder the experts looked to germ warfare as the culprit. Original outbreaks of the flu in the U.S. occurred in the military training camps crowded with young men from the farms and cities. By mid-October, The Sun estimated 7,000 young soldiers had died of influenza in the U.S. Army camps, while war deaths of troops in combat for the entire year numbered just over 9,500. Camp Meade, now Fort George G. Meade, was reporting 500 to 650 new cases daily. (German troops, however, also suffered from flu deaths, putting the lie to the germ warfare charges.)

At the same time, Baltimore's civilian community was recording extremely high death tolls, with hospitals filled to capacity and city services operating with minimum staffs. Schools closed and business establishments curtailed operating hours. (But saloons remained open for medicinal purposes, whiskey being an accepted treatment.)

Richard Collier chronicled the pandemic in his book, "The Plague of the Spanish Lady: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919." The swift-moving illness had a two-day incubation period with accompanying cough, followed by pain behind the eyes, in the ears and in the lumbar region. The body was invaded with drowsy numbness and fever that could spike to 104 degrees. The pulse would become weak and unstable, the tongue thickly coated. The victim would find the sight of food revolting.

Collier described men "literally choking to death with pulmonary oedema, the lungs so swamped with blood, foam and mucus that the faces were gray and lips purple and each desperate breath . . . like the quacking of a duck." If the sufferer was lucky, the fever would run its course in three days. Death resulted when the victim developed pneumonia. (One study found soldiers from cities were better able to resist the flu. The young men who fell ill most frequently and suffered the highest mortality rate came from the farms in the heartland.)

Indeed, the hallmark of the Spanish Flu was the age of the victims. Obituaries in The Sun during the month of October 1918 listed the names and ages of young adult men and women: William Howard Linn, age 43; Leyla Jordan Franklin, age 35, survived by four small children; Mrs. Grove Dove and daughter Carrie, age 2 years; Mrs. Lily Almo Shock, 35; Claude Arnold, 37, and his wife, Grace Arnold, 35. The Arnold children lost both parents to the flu within hours of each other.

By November the worst was over for Baltimore and the rest of the state. The city had recorded 3,414 deaths by Nov. 4, 1918, a week before the war ended. Camp Meade's death toll neared 800. Total deaths statewide were 5,160.

"The human mind always tries to expunge the intolerable from memory, just as it tries to conceal it while current," said H. L. Mencken in 1956 about the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and America's memory loss concerning the flu pandemic. It is seldom mentioned in almanacs, for example, among the many pages given over to natural disasters.

Even in the age of antibiotics we would be wise to remember a time when a virus could kill 21 million people in a few months. And remember also that the virus that caused the Spanish Flu was never isolated or identified. As swiftly as it appeared, it vanished. Did it disappear forever, mutate or go underground? Could it return with all its fury?

Joan Whitson Wallace writes from Severn. Her grandfather, a 27-year-old Montana homesteader, died in the flu epidemic 75 years ago this month.

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