Monthly Archives: December 2020

“Until this epidemic is over”

Flu fighter: Kentucky’s Dr. Joseph N. McCormack

A looming pandemic, its dangers made vivid by the closing of churches, schools and other places of assembly.  A ramped-up campaign of “warning and advisory literature.”  A frantic effort by federal and state authorities as well as local physicians and relief workers to suppress the spread of the disease, followed by some relaxing of quarantine restrictions.

Then, a series of “celebrations and similar festivities, during which all precautions and safeguards were thrown to the winds.”  A spike in cases, and renewed calls to reinstate closures.  But then, a vaccine, ready to be distributed to states and administered first to those most at risk.

So read the summary of Dr. Joseph N. McCormack, Secretary of the Kentucky State Board of Health, published in newspapers in December 1918.  The pandemic, of course, was influenza, and the super-spreader celebrations were the parties, parades and gatherings that marked the end of World War I.

The vaccine to which McCormack referred, one of many produced during the pandemic, had been developed by Dr. Edward C. Rosenow of the Mayo Foundation’s Division of Experimental Bacteriology.  After testing it on the staff of his own institution and concluding it was safe, he offered it free to physicians and hospitals, as long as they would return questionnaires reporting on its use and results. 

McCormack responded to Kentucky doctors who requested doses of the Rosenow vaccine with a letter outlining its ingredients, giving instructions (three inoculations, one week apart), and touting its successful use in the Army—and curiously, on policy holders of the Equitable Life Insurance Company and employees of Pittsburgh’s Homestead Steel Works.  The Kentucky State Board, he advised, endorsed the vaccine for use “by every person in Kentucky who is not certain that he or she has recently had influenza.”  McCormack’s colleague Dr. Lillian H. South, who had visited the Mayo Clinic to procure a half-million doses, had charge of distributing the vaccine from the State Board’s offices in Bowling Green. 

Despite Dr. McCormack’s eminence—he is now regarded as one of the most influential public health figures in Kentucky’s history—his letter showed that vaccine development and testing was still in its infancy.  For example, like other vaccines of the time, the Rosenow vaccine was made from what one historian has described as a “witches brew” of  bacteria isolated from dead and living patients, “heat-killed,” and added to an injectable fluid (compare to today’s COVID-19 vaccines, which do not contain the virus).  Vaccine studies, moreover, suffered from what our historian has termed selection bias, unequal exposure to risk, and inadequate data collection on outcomes.  (Rosenow’s requests for responses to his questionnaire, in fact, appear to have been largely ignored). 

The Rosenow vaccine was soon subjected to a somewhat more rigorous test involving the residents of a California asylum.  While still lacking many of the methods employed in today’s clinical trials—double-blind studies, placebos, and informed consent of subjects, to name a few—this study found the vaccine to be ineffective.  The confusion nevertheless brought a significant benefit, namely the initiation of a movement in the medical profession to devise proper standards for vaccine trials.

In the meantime, even Dr. McCormack understood that vaccines were not a panacea.  In his announcement given to newspapers that December, he admonished flu-ravaged Kentuckians in now-familiar terms:

1.  Keep away from all crowds of all kinds.
2.  Keep out of the sick room and away from houses with sickness, unless your services are needed.  Keep clean and wear a mask if you do go.
3.  Cover your cough or sneeze and keep away from people who do not.
4.  Keep away from dirty eating and soft drink houses.
5.  Have and do little visiting until this epidemic is over.

Dr. Joseph N. McCormack’s letter to physicians about the Rosenow vaccine is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan of the letter.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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History in a Holiday Letter

Beulah Strong

Who wouldn’t have wanted to experience the artistic and cultural treasures of Europe in the company of Beulah Strong?  Born in 1866, the Massachusetts native studied art in Paris, then joined the faculty at Bowling Green’s Potter College for Young Ladies, where she taught art from 1892-1901.  After three years at Nashville’s Belmont College, she moved to Smith College, where she was an associate professor of art from 1907 until her retirement in 1923. 

After retiring, Miss Strong moved to Florence, Italy but still kept in close touch with her friends in Bowling Green.  Her holiday letter of December 2, 1933 showed how eagerly she had taken advantage of her proximity to Europe’s most charming destinations.  “Without taking any very long or distant trips” over the past year, she wrote, “I have had a number of small and pleasant ones.”  Small and pleasant indeed: there was the previous Christmas spent in Rome, “splendid and grand,” its vistas opened up by the cleaning up of the “mean streets.”  There was a tour of northern Italy – Pavia, Brescia, Cremona, Mantua and Parma – which she made sure not to visit at Lent because the altar-pieces in the churches would be covered up.  There was the great Franciscan monastery at La Verna, with its “precious” Della Robbia terracottas and “many picturesque nooks.”  Then, three weeks exploring the museums of Germany, with excursions to the cathedral at Bamberg, the Bavarian resort town of Tegernsee, and other “lovely little cities.”  And at home, there was gardening, concerts, and afternoons entertaining friends from the local expatriate American and English communities.

But as Depression and war loomed, ugliness was intruding upon all of this beauty.  Of immediate concern was the financial squeeze that jeopardized Miss Strong’s desire to make another holiday trip to Rome.  Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s efforts to prop up the lira were colliding with President Franklin Roosevelt’s devaluation of the dollar as part of his economic recovery plan.  For the time being, however, only FDR – “our dictator-president” – attracted Miss Strong’s ire for undercutting the purchasing power of her savings.

More unsettling were affairs in Germany.  Upon entering, Miss Strong had been required to disclose her money holdings – “just how much I was taking in and it was checked up as I came out.”  Even more ominous was the growing persecution of German Jews after Adolf Hitler’s seizure of dictatorial powers earlier that year.  An elderly Jewish friend had asked Miss Strong to check on her family in Germany “and hear from their own lips how things were, as letters are censored, opened at the frontier.”  Some of the family had begun to experience the effects of laws excluding Jews from professions and civil service positions “and as these Government places were for life with a pension at the end, few of them saved much.”  Emigration, too, was increasingly difficult, given the restrictions on taking money out of Germany.  Still, Miss Strong remained more suspicious of Roosevelt’s fiscal policies, hoping he “won’t try that scheme! We should have to crawl home with our tails between our legs.”

Back in August 1914, while touring Europe with her mother, Beulah Strong had barely managed to secure passage back to the United States at the outbreak of World War I.  History seemed to repeat itself in 1940 when she returned again to the United States, leaving behind both the beauty and ugliness of her Italian sojourn. 

Beulah Strong’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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