Historian draws parallels between 1918 Spanish flu and current coronavirus pandemic
At the end of August 1918, thousands of American sailors housed at the Commonwealth Pier in the Boston Harbor District were waiting to be dispatched to fight in Europe during the First World War.
Then a few sailors came to the infirmary with fever and other symptoms. By the end of that week, around 100 more were falling ill every day.
This was the second wave of the so-called Spanish flu to hit America in 1918, and it hit Boston first.
Author and historian Kenneth C. Davis speaks with WBUR All things Considered about his book on the 1918 epidemic, “Deadlier than war”, and the coronavirus pandemic that is hitting the country today.
Here are some highlights from the interview, slightly edited for clarity.
How Boston becomes the “zero point” of the second wave of influenza
Well, first of all, we have to set the scene by saying the emphasis on the war in September 1918. America was at war. It took almost a year for the United States to prepare to send troops. And they had exploded in the spring of 1918, just as what we called the Spanish flu was starting to take off. It had slowed down – the flu season was over – but then started to make a comeback. In late August and early September, he hit Boston with a vengeance. And Boston was a major military port and a nearby military encampment.
On the US Surgeon General sending doctors to Boston
These were four of the most experienced doctors in epidemics in the world at the time. What they saw there frightened them. They saw bodies piled up like rope wood, as one of them reported. So many healthy young men were dying so quickly that they couldn’t believe their eyes.
And their deaths were horrible. They were coughing, consumed with pain, high fevers. Some of them were bleeding from their eyes, nose, mouth and ears. And some of them were turning blue because they didn’t have enough oxygen. In fact, before it was called the Spanish Flu, it was called Death Purple. It’s a term for what we would now call cyanosis: you turn blue because you aren’t getting enough oxygen in your lungs. And that’s what is killing these otherwise healthy young men.
On the spread of influenza across the country
The sailors who brought it to Boston not only spread it all over Boston and then the rest of New England, they also boarded ships and spread it to the rest of America for several manners …
They spread it across Philadelphia, which has probably become America’s worst-hit city. Boston was not far behind. They went to New Orleans. So he hit Louisiana. They sailed to San Francisco. So it hit there. They went to the Great Lakes Naval Station outside of Chicago, the largest naval base in the world at the time. Then people got on trains and toured the rest of the country …
You can’t understand the history of the Spanish Flu without understanding WWI. And you can’t really understand what happened in the last year of WWI without understanding the flu.
On the first experiences with military prisoners to treat influenza
They had six deaths. I think about 60 men agreed to do it. They were going to be released for various offenses. And what was curious was that none of them – although they were dabbed and then injected with live virus, goo and sick phlegm in any way to get these guys to contract the virus – none of them did. And this is one of the many mysteries of the Spanish flu, why these men from the brig in Boston didn’t get sick.
I must also say that at the time, they did not know what a virus was. It would take almost 20 years before viruses were actually seen and understood. So these doctors were fighting in the dark.
On the lessons we can learn from the Spanish flu
I think there are three central lessons.
One of the really important points of this is that lies, censorship and even propaganda have been very critical in the spread of the disease. It was believed, for example, that the Germans might have started this, that they had given us poisoned water, or that Bayer, a German company, had contaminated aspirin, its wonder drug.
The next point is very important: ignore science. There were clearly scientists, doctors, doctors who advocated a much more aggressive response to this and certainly avoided large crowds. These were ignored in part because of the war again.
People wanted to have big marches for the freedom loan. Liberty loans were war bonds. The fourth Liberty Loan Drive began in September 1918, right in the middle of the explosion. Boston held a parade. Philadelphia had an infamous parade where two hundred thousand people were in the streets. And two days later, every hospital bed was full. So ignoring science is really deadly.
And finally, misplaced priorities. In 1918, the priority was to win the war, so the troops continued to be dispatched even though the medics said not to embark these soldiers in the personnel carriers.
So, we are taking these lessons and watching them today. What have we learned? Boston tried to shut down. It was too late. Other cities have paid much more attention to social distancing and flattened the curve, a modern term. But it’s a very important lesson to learn that if we move too early to relax these measures, it can be very, very expensive. It was certainly in 1918.