When Will They Ever Learn?

When Will They Ever Learn?

November History Story

By John Hibble

The biggest enemy of the human race is disease. Throughout history, armies have always been defeated from the wasting away from diseases rather than the onslaught of their mortal foes. World War I, the Great War, the war to end all wars, was the first war in history where the new weapons were so destructive that more people were killed by combat, rather than by disease. But disease tried hard not to be out done.

The Great War started in July of 1914 in Europe and the United States entered the war in April of 1917. Conditions were terrible and soldiers were sickened from many diseases such as typhus, but in 1918 a virulent form of influenza became an epidemic that spread around the world infecting 500 million people, a third of the world’s population. As the disease initially spread, Germany, France and the United Kingdom imposed wartime censorship but newspapers were free to cover the effects of the flu on Spain, which was a neutral country, so the epidemic became known as the Spanish Flu.

There is speculation about where the disease initially came from but the first “official” case was an Army cook at an Army base in Kansas where troops were being trained for the war. It is suspected that the influenza was transmitted from chickens or swine on the army base that were being raised for feeding the troops. As troops deployed to Europe they took the flu with them. It is possible that it was really the American Flu. I interviewed a man whose grandfather caught the flu on a troop ship going to Europe. He was hospitalized, given the Purple Heart medal, (for those wounded or killed on the battlefield), and then he was sent home. When the war ended in November of 1918 the returning soldiers brought the disease back home to their families and friends.

The first wave of the epidemic was considered mild but the second wave came in the fall of 1918. This version was devastating and many people died within days of contracting it. Patient’s lungs would fill with blood and they would turn blue, often hemorrhaging from the nose, mouth and ears before dying.

Public health agencies used historic methods to prevent infection including social distancing, good ventilation, the use of disinfectants, and wearing masks. A physician remarked, “There are ten ways of getting disease”, and he held up ten fingers. “Keep your hands away from your face”. Failure to wear a mask quickly became cause for arrest and prosecution.

Hand washing, tooth brushing and gargling were recommended. Mass gatherings were banned. Public transportation was restricted. Schools, theaters, places of worship, saloons, and pool halls were closed. Some people were resistant to accepting these restrictions for “the public good” and businesses complained about the effect on the economy.

The first death in Santa Cruz came in October of 1918. The next day there were eight more cases and it did not stop there. Within two weeks there were 220 cases. By early November, Watsonville had 382 cases. Hundreds of people died. Hospitals and Funeral homes were overwhelmed. Within months, visitors flocked to Santa Cruz County during the off season in order to escape the contagion in California’s Central Valley.

By 1920, possibly because of prohibition, whisky was considered one of the most effective medicines to treat influenza. Doctors were allowed to prescribe a quart of whisky per month per patient.

Carolyn Swift and I interviewed Ralph Mattison when he was 97 years old. Ralph’s father died of the influenza leaving Ralph to take over the family’s apple dryer and vinegar business in Aptos Village.  Ralph and his sister Amy Wiser, (former Aptos Postmaster), said, “Everybody was sick. Nobody could pay attention to anybody else. You couldn’t get a nurse. If you lived, you lived.  That’s why there were so many that died.  We lost a lot of people. There was one old doctor in Soquel, Dr. Davis. Some of ‘em used to think he was a kind of old horse doctor. I think he lost one person.  The other doctors lost them like flies.  Old Doc Davis come in, and if you catch a flu and feel bad, ‘Alright come on here.  Gotta blanket? I don’t care if it’s the best blanket you’ve got in the whole house.’  He’d cut a hole in it for your head, pull it over you, tie it around you and put you to bed. “Don’t you get outta here for nothin’. He kept them there and kept them warm. Gave them no medicine. They used to say he lost one patient.  Well he may have lost more, but not many”. 

The war ended on November 11, 1918 but influenza did not sign the armistice. Influenza continued. Just as people and authorities began to see a reduction in infections, they would let their guard down and the flu would come roaring back. In all there were three successive waves. And those who survived the flu only had limited immunity. Famed baseball slugger Babe Ruth caught the virus twice and survived. It was not until April of 1920 that the disease retreated.

1918 Armistice Day celebration in front of the Santa Cruz Post Office. If you look closely you will see that people are wearing gauze masks. UCSC Special Collections.

One hundred years ago it was not as easy to determine the exact cause of every person’s death. It is estimated that 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians were killed in World War I. The pandemic eventually killed many more people than the war. It is estimated the 1918 influenza killed between 50 million, and possibly up to 100 million people worldwide. It is considered the worst pandemic in history. In the United States about 28% of the population of 105 million became infected, and 500,000 to 850,000 died.

Today we are faced with the most dangerous virus since 1918. Until there is a vaccine, the preventative measures are the same as they were in 1918 and studies have shown that those measures are effective. And just like 1918, there are people who refuse to accept restrictions for the public welfare. The 10th amendment to the Constitution gives the power to the states to declare emergencies and to enact restrictions for the public benefit. Sadly, some people still refuse to be governed.

Three quotes;

“History is a vast early warning system”. – Norman Cousins

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. – George Santayana

“History never repeats itself. Man always does. Man always does”. – Voltaire

Many people will die before this is over. Let us hope that it is not you or me or the ones we love. Remember, “Mask it, or Casket”. Stay well!

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