1918 Flu Epidemic
Saturday, October 25, 2003
Following one of the most deadly flu pandemics in history, a 1919 October article in the Towner newspaper carried an article theorizing that the outbreak had probably stemmed from lack of embalming of black plague victims in the Middle Ages.
The 1918 outbreak of influenza was devastating, killing 20 to 30 million people. As with the plague in the Middle Ages, people grasped at straws, trying to understand where the disease came from and why it was so potent. The country had certainly seen flu epidemics before, but unlike previous strains, the 1918 variety didn’t settle for typical high-risk individuals, such as the elderly and those in weakened conditions. On the contrary, the 1918 flu was killing mainly healthy robust men and women in their 20s and 30s.
The “sanitary scientist” featured in the Towner newspaper article theorized that World War I soldiers, who had dug miles and miles of trenches across central Europe, had unwittingly unearthed tainted remains of plague victims. Since embalming and disinfecting were unknown to Europeans during the Middle Ages, he postulated that the germs were still viable and waiting to be released into the air. With so much earth blown apart by ammunition blasts, the theory of the unleashed human remains seemed as valid as any other of the time.
Other reports pinpoint the start of the disease as being the morning of March 11th, 1918, at Camp Funston in Kansas when Albert Mitchell, a company cook, came down with a low-grade fever, mild sore throat, slight headache, and muscle aches. By noon, 107 soldiers were sick. Within two days, 522 people were sick. Many became critically ill with severe pneumonia.
Then reports started coming in from other military bases around the country. Thousands of sailors off the East Coast were sick, and within a week, the disease was hitting more isolated places. Sixty percent of the population of Nome, Alaska, died.
Whatever the cause, it was clearly airborne, and within seven days, every state in the Union had been infected. Then it spread across the Atlantic. By April, French troops and civilians were infected. By mid-April, it showed up in the Far East. By May, the virus had spread throughout Africa and South America.
In North Dakota, schools and colleges closed their doors for a month or more during the worst part of the epidemic. A 1918 editorial in the North Dakota Agricultural College newspaper encouraged students to cheer up, because after more than a month of no studies or social functions, they were once again able to open the school; meanwhile UND was still closed because of the epidemic.
One story from those times is of Matt Barlett, who homesteaded with his brother, Allison, near Minot in 1908. All went well until the winter of 1918-1919, when the epidemic hit. Allison died, and Matt was taken to a hospital. He sent a message to relatives in Wisconsin asking for help taking care of the ranch and stock. Two volunteered, Charlie and George Bartlett; but both became ill as soon they arrived. Charlie started for home, but was taken off the train at Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he died. George was nursed by a neighbor and recovered. Matt also recovered, but ended up giving up his ranch.
Fortunately, the 1918 flu peaked within two to three weeks after showing up, leaving as quickly as it arrived. And thankfully, the 1918 strain ran its course that year and has never resurfaced – knock on wood.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm