Tag Archives: Influenza

“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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“They either get well or die”

Philadelphia's Liberty Loan parade on Sept. 28, 1918 triggered one of the worst outbreaks of flu in the country.

Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan parade on Sept. 28, 1918 triggered one of the worst outbreaks of flu in the country.

Besides the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, 2018 marks the centennial of one of the deadliest scourges in history, the 1918 influenza pandemic.  Striking in three waves, the outbreak finally subsided in summer 1919, leaving tens of millions dead worldwide and about 675,000 in the United States.

Lacking the means to diagnose flu viruses or any drugs to combat them, the medical community was overwhelmed.  But the scale of the pandemic seemed to do little to dampen the enthusiasm of George Hays, then working for the U.S. Public Health Service.  Writing in February 1919 to his stepmother Georgia (Carley) Hays, a native of Scott County, Kentucky, George gave her an account of his experiences among the sick at Philadelphia General Hospital that was both upbeat and curiously matter-of-fact.

Cash-poor and in debt to his stepmother, George had at first contemplated a two-week paid stint in New York “to help inoculate the Police force with a new pneumonia serum.”  The assignment in Philadelphia, however, with medical tutelage under two renowned instructors, looked to be more beneficial in the long run.  “We have been given a new ward of Men’s Medical and all of Women’s Influenza,” he wrote.  He felt lucky, for with this newly opened ward came fresh new patients, instead of “a number of old bed-ridden uninteresting patients who have been here for years.”  The women’s influenza ward, he observed clinically, “is a good thing also because all cases are new and they either get well or die and leave room for new ones quickly.”  Finally, there was the challenge of weeding out cases “sent to Flu because they give a history of symptoms similar to Flu, when in reality they are not Flu at all.”  And so, decided Hays, here lay a great opportunity to hobnob with some “really big men of the surgical and medical world,” see the sights of Philadelphia, and forget about his own bout with the flu, which had left his heart struggling under “terrific prostrating toxemia.”

George Hays’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For other collections about the influenza pandemic, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“Dad”

image of clipping and tag regarding Fred Gorham

Fred J. Gorham, 1878-1918

When the U.S. entered World War I, Fred J. Gorham was a 40-year-old bank officer in Henderson, Kentucky, with a wife and young daughter.  But Gorham had also served as a cavalry officer in the Spanish-American War, and believed that his experience would help the Army in training recruits.

After obtaining special permission from the U.S. Army Adjutant General, Gorham re-enlisted in July 1918 as a private.  He was donning the uniform once more, he wrote his aunt, “to render what service I can in the behalf of Democracy against Autocracy, and quell the oppression of violence and outrage against the women and children of the smaller nations of the world.”  He hoped to go overseas, he wrote his brother, and “if I am allowed to ‘Go Over the Top’ once, then I won’t care what happens or where they send me.”

After reporting to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Gorham’s next stop was an Army base in Columbus, New Mexico.  “Dad,” as his younger comrades called him, quickly earned the respect of the troops as he led them in exercises like target practice.  “You could tell who the Kentucky boys were,” he wrote his mother, “by the way they could shoot.”

But twelve days after that letter, and having assured both his wife and mother that the camp was healthy, Gorham was dead of pneumonia following an attack of influenza.  This veteran of one war and volunteer for another was the victim of a pandemic that, over the next two years, would kill millions worldwide.

Gorham’s remains were interred in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery and his name added to the honor roll of Henderson County’s “Immortal Dead.”  The Henderson Daily Gleaner‘s list, in fact showed more of the county’s sons losing their lives to disease than to battle wounds.

Fred Gorham’s letters and papers are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more Spanish-American War and World War I collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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What I Learned in Summer School…

Gabe

Gabe Sudbeck, summer intern in Manuscripts.

“Everyone has a story and I want to know what it is.” These words were spoken by the late WKU history Professor Carlton Jackson. This notion has formed a phrase that has stuck with me since I read them. My name is Gabe Sudbeck and during my time as an intern in WKU’s Library Special Collections Manuscripts unit, I spent a lot of time reading his work and looking over his research about the HMS Rohna and the 1918 flu epidemic. When I was home one night talking with my mother about my internship, and I found out that she (a WKU Alumna) had actually been a research assistant with Jackson during her time at WKU. She said that he was a wonderful man. While I personally never had the honor to meet him in person, I do believe that he was a fine man full of energy and passion for his field.

The stories that I read about in the collection concerned regular people dealing with survival and tragedy in world events. The sinking of the Rohna for example was a tragedy in which over 1000 American men lost their lives. Many were left adrift for three days. Many men began to think of their loved ones. One story featured a man lost at sea who could hear his wife telling him that he could pull though. Another consisted of a priest recalling the story of a member of his church who refused to be baptized due to fear of being submerged under water which reminded him of being adrift at sea for three days.

One thing I learned from the internship is the personal connections that the researcher makes with his subject when he begins to study a historical event or person. I have heard stories that David McCullough, when researching John Adams intended for it to be about both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. But McCullough found Adams to be more interesting and under appreciated, despite his significant contributions. McCullough truly enjoyed his discovery and his research; in the same spirit Carlton Jackson relished each of his writing projects. If I have learned anything from studying his work, it’s that we all have our own story to tell from the greatest of tragedies to the minutiae of everyday life.

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“Closed on Account of Influenza”

It was a disaster rarely spoken of today, yet it killed more Americans than all of our 20th-century wars combined.  Over 10 months alone in 1918, a vicious strain of influenza took the lives of more than half a million in the United States, and some 30 million worldwide.  Today, as many obtain their routine vaccination in anticipation of flu season, it is difficult to imagine such a sudden and destructive plague.

Scottsville teacher Eva Dalton's monthly report during the 1918 flu epidemic.

Scottsville teacher Eva Dalton’s monthly report during the 1918 flu epidemic.

But evidence of influenza’s shadow, especially in the terrible autumn of 1918, is preserved in several collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Some Kentuckians seemed to wait in resignation for the illness to strike.  Returning home to Auburn, a correspondent wrote Smiths Grove farmer Carlos Moore of a passenger “on the train last night almost dead with ‘Flu.'”  She was planning another trip the next week, “if I don’t take the ‘Flu.'”  Butler Countian Stella (Phelps) Minton and her family became so ill that her 7-year-old son had to assume all household duties.  Grief-stricken when two other sons died, Stella and her husband kept a small trunk filled with the boys’ belongings for the rest of their lives.

Entire institutions shut down in an attempt to curb the epidemic.  “The flu is on again here pretty badly,” wrote Cumberland County Circuit Court clerk Nevins Hume to a litigant in November 1918; consequently, “we did not have any Court, and will not have any until March.”  Scottsville teacher Eva Dalton recorded lines of zeroes in her attendance register as her school was “closed on account of influenza.”  Naomi Strum reported to her soldier husband that the Webster County schools were closing; nevertheless, she assured him there was “no danger in me taking it for I am not going in a crowd until it is over.”

The flu, of course, gave soldiers and their families additional cause to worry about one another in the closing months of World War I.  Serving overseas in December 1918, James McWherter heard from his father in Monroe County that the “The flu is still here, some are still dying with it.”  Drucilla Short wrote her brother George Harris in October that “influenza has put a ban on all churches, theaters and schools.”  Unfortunately, Drucilla’s letter was returned, for her brother had also lost his life–not to the flu, but to battlefield wounds.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For other collections relating to the 1918 influenza epidemic, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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