CORONAVIRUS

'Death stalked swiftly' in 1918. What will we remember now?

Cots were set up in the gymnasium at Iowa State University in Ames to handle influenza patients during the 1918 flu pand
Cots were set up in the gymnasium at Iowa State University in Ames to handle influenza patients during the 1918 flu pandemic. More than 93,000 Iowans contracted the illness, and 6,116 died, according to the Iowa State Board of Health. (Office of the Public Health Service Historian)

In August 1919, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette opined in favor of the passage of a $5 million congressional appropriation to “investigate influenza, its cause, prevention and cure.”

“We all remember without effort the darkness and terror which engulfed the land last fall and winter as death stalked swiftly from seaboard to seaboard, into crowded city and unto lonely plain, sparing not the cottage of the poor nor the mansion of the rich,” the editorial said. “In four short months, influenza claimed a half million lives and pressed millions of others onto beds of sickness, suffering and helplessness. The nation’s mortality rate leapt high and with astounding speed. The nation was unprepared to cope with a disease calamity such as it has never known.”

The Gazette lamented that billions of dollars in loss were wrought by the pandemic of so-called Spanish influenza, compared with only $5 million being spent to investigate the virus.

“More has been spent in studying diseases of hogs,” the editorial argued.

Just less than a year earlier, The Evening Gazette did not see “darkness and terror” coming. A front page, above-the-fold story Sept. 25, 1918, asked: “Spanish Influenza just the old-fashioned grippe?” “Grippe” is an old-time term for the flu, by the way.

“As a matter of fact, in the opinion of City Physician Beardsley, and a good many other Cedar Rapids men in the same profession, Spanish influenza is just another name for the regular old fashioned influenza and is no different from the influenza we have always had. A bad cold is a bad cold, and a worse cold is grippe, which covers a multitude of things ...,” The Gazette reported, optimistically.

An earlier strain of influenza in the spring of 1918 had been less virulent and deadly. But the second wave was no ordinary grippe.

By mid-October, according to reports in The Evening Gazette, influenza caseloads exploded. On Oct. 12, 1918, the local health board shut down pool rooms, billiard halls and bowling alleys. It pleaded with store owners to avoid allowing crowds to linger. On Oct. 16, stores were ordered to discontinue any special sales that might draw more shoppers.

Restrictions tightened as the pandemic worsened.

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Death notices were stacking up on Gazette pages, in rows reminiscent of small tombstones. Many victims were cut down in the prime of life by a virus that struck young, healthy people hardest. Mothers and fathers died, leaving young children. Soldiers serving in World War I died far away from home. Visitors to town never returned home.

Young brothers died and were mourned at a double funeral. A sister who came to care for a sick brother died, and so did her brother.

Ray Franklin Minburn, 24, died of influenza, leaving behind six sisters and two brothers. “Mr. Minburn was a faithful son, a devoted companion, a good neighbor,” concluded his death announcement on Oct. 21, 1918.

On the same page that day came news, tucked among the tombstones, reporting that Iowa Gov. William Harding had recovered from influenza, in the midst of his reelection campaign, and was back in the office. You might remember Harding as the governor who banned German and other languages during World War I and who was nearly impeached for bribery in 1919.

Not far from Harding’s update came news from the prison in Anamosa that “whisky and quinine” were being deployed to attack the grippe.

The pages of The Evening Gazette also were dotted with advertisements for supposed cures and treatments.

“Danger of infection from influenza or any contagious disease can be eliminated by using preventive measures,” prescribed by Ruby S. Thompson, chiropractor and naturopathic physician. Those included “Sulphur-vapor baths, Carlsbad mineral bath.”

You could build up your blood using “Gude’s Pepto-Mangan,” the “Red Blood Builder.” Keep your strength up with Horlick’s Malted Milk.

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One ad looked exactly like a news story, carrying the bold headline “Druggists still asked to conserve stocks of VapoRub needed in ‘flu’ districts.” In a tiny notation at the end of the “story” were the words “The Vicks Chemical Co.”

That August 1919 Gazette editorial I mentioned makes me wonder what we’ll be writing in a year or so after our current pandemic.

Death stalking us swiftly from seaboard to seaboard in an unprepared nation, preceded by the casual insistence it’s no worse than the seasonal flu, sounds eerily familiar in 2020. More attention is being paid to hogs than the health of humans working in meatpacking plants.

Will we be writing in 2021 how reopening states and counties too soon led to our own second wave? Here in Iowa, reopening began before we had a fully working predictive model to chart the pandemic’s course and before new testing efforts had a chance to ramp up. Will decisions made without crucial information look smart in 2021? Or will we wish we’d waited just a couple more weeks?

What of the protesters demanding liberation? What about the president, running for reelection in a nation harmed by his crisis mismanagement? What will a new normal look like?

Will there be newspapers around to editorialize in the aftermath? After all, most of the pitches for fake cures are online now, some even extolled at White House briefings.

And will we be better prepared next time? I bet editorial writers in 1919 figured we’d have this pandemic response thing down to a science by now.

Little did they know that in 2020 we’d have so little respect for science. And after a century-plus, the darkness and terror apparently slipped our minds.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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