Dunkirk and its bout with the 1918 flu

By Oct. 12, 1918, more than 600 residents of Dunkirk were already infected with the influenza virus, often referred to as Spanish Influenza or the grippe. Cases in nearby Fredonia numbered in the hundreds, as well. Brooks Memorial Hospital, in the former Horatio G. Brooks mansion on Central Avenue, was so taxed by this time that the city set up the City Emergency Hospital in the hospital annex to care for the most severe cases.

On any one day during the month of October, between 25 and 30 influenza patients were being cared for by an ever-dwindling number of nurses who were becoming patients themselves. At one point, more than half of the nursing staff at Brooks Memorial was stricken. During the height of the outbreak, desperate pleas were made in the Evening OBSERVER for more nurses and volunteer helpers.

After all these years, the origin of the influenza pandemic of 1918-20 is still being debated by scientists and scholars: Did it come from Russia via France and the warfront? China? Kansas?

An article in the September 19 edition of the OBSERVER reported as fact that prisoners were taken on board German submarines, infected with influenza germs, then released to spread the disease up and down the east coast in those cities having military bases close by.

This piece of wartime propaganda was, no doubt, fabricated by our War Department, to explain to the American public how more than 35,000 young and healthy soldiers and sailors stationed in the United States were stricken so suddenly. Many were also suffering from serious secondary bacterial infections caused by an overreaction of their own immune systems which sent volumes of antibodies and lymph to the infected areas, slowly drowning the patient in his own fluids.

One such case was that of Rosario Liberty, on leave from Camp Dix, New Jersey, who had returned to Fredonia to visit his two brothers, Anthony and James, and his sister, Mrs. Joseph Joy. He arrived complaining of headaches. Family members reported later that “he did not appear quite in his right mind.” Doctor Griswold was called to the Joy home on Farrell Avenue on Thursday, Sept. 26 where Rosario was confined to bed. Three days later, on Sunday, September 29 Rosario died. His was the first influenza-related death reported in the OBSERVER. Due to contagious nature of Rosario’s sickness and subsequent death, his family followed the standard procedures of the day: the house was fumigated, windows thrown open, the casketed body isolated followed by a private funeral the next day.

For the residents of Dunkirk, the spring and summer of 1918 were the calm before the storm. Spanish Influenza was something happening in foreign lands and faraway places. Only a few brief articles in the Observer mentioned the epidemic: “King Alfonso Is Ill with Plague”; “Spanish Influenza in England”; “Grippe Epidemic Around Boston.” In early October, the virus appeared with a vengeance in Chautauqua County. How? Perhaps a salesman from New York City passing through on a business trip; soldiers coming home on leave; out-of-town relatives in Dunkirk for a family affair. By Oct. 10, 500 cases of influenza were reported to the Dunkirk Board of Health.

Under the direction of Dr. George E. Ellis, City Health Officer, and Mayor James A. Pierce, the Dunkirk Board of Health soon coordinated a program to control the spread of influenza. On Oct. 12, the Board issued a public service announcement outlining measures to be taken to stem the advancement of the disease. Unfortunately, the nature of the disease was not fully understood in 1918, nor the reason why so many of its victims were the young and healthy. Also unknown to the medical profession was the fact that an infected person was contagious two to four days before the first symptoms even appeared, thus facilitating the spreading of the disease in ever-widening ripples throughout the community.

At the top the Board of Health’s list were two of the more sensible recommendations: isolate the sick and avoid crowds. Other than palliative care, medical science, at that time, had very little to offer those who became infected: stay in bed, keep warm, open bedroom windows, eat nourishing food, and sneeze or cough in a handerchief. For those who felt the first symptoms coming on, the use of laxatives to purge one’s system was suggested! Sunshine was recommended for healthy individuals, along with fresh air, dry feet, no over-exertion, walking to work, breathing through one’s nose not mouth, gauze masks, the boiling of dishes and bed linens, and the avoidance of crowds, particularly individuals who were sneezing or coughing. It was also hoped that sunny days and clear cold nights would ameliorate conditions in the city.

However well-intentioned, most of the above recommendations did little to heal the sick or keep the healthy well. There was simply no cure for the influenza: no effective drugs, no vaccines, no antibiotics. As often as not, the “cure” was worse than the sickness. Patients were injected with typhoid vaccine, hydrogen peroxide, mercuric chloride (used to treat syphilis), codeine, Epsom Salts, Castor Oil, arsenic, quinine and heroin.

Maybe the residents of unspecified “foreign sections of the city” had the right idea. The Observer reported on Nov. 1 that the inhabitants of those neighborhoods (German? Italian? Polish?) waited until they were seriously ill before checking themselves into the hospital.

Perhaps it was a language barrier that kept them away, or was it the old-world suspicion of hospitals — a place where you go to die?

Wanting to stem the spread of the disease as quickly as possible, the Dunkirk Common Council began a series of drastic steps on Oct. 9. First to be closed were Dunkirk’s theaters and movie houses for the three weeks. The closing of all city schools followed. Trolley cars were not to be over-crowded and they were limited to seated passengers only. All trolleys were to be disinfected at the end of the day.

Dance halls, ice cream parlors, social clubs and bars were closed to the end of the month. However, bars were allowed to continue selling bottled liquor, but only from the front door. Customers had to remain outside. Even Dunkirk’s churches were closed until the end of the month. On Sunday, Oct. 27, churches were allowed to be opened for services, under the following conditions: services were to last only 30 minutes; all doors and windows were to remain opened during and after the service; anyone coughing or sneezing was required to leave the building; lastly, the congregation had to disband immediately at the end of the service. According to the Observer, the turnout was very small that Sunday.

Because of the three-week closure of city schools, teachers were asked to canvass the neighborhoods to gain accurate statistics. The first survey was undertaken on Oct. 21. They found 340 adults and 223 children sick. Ten nurses at Brooks Memorial were either sick or recovering. Two nurses, Miss L. Anita Paul and Mrs. Jennie J. Luce succumbed to the virus. Anita was just 25 years old and in the last year of the nursing program at Brooks. She reported for duty on October 14 for her 7 a.m. shift.

Within three hours she was in bed. She died on Oct. 21 of the deadly influenza/pneumonia combination. Her mother came from Binghamton to claim the body for burial in that city. On November 4, the teachers conducted their second survey. The numbers were not encouraging: 376 adults and 243 children were infected: 56 more than two weeks before. Red Cross workers often found entire families in bed unable to care for one another. In some cases, young children, who were not sick, were placed in foster care until their parents recovered.

By the second week of November, the number of cases in Dunkirk began to drop. As suddenly as it came, the outbreak seemed to disappear. On Nov. 14, Dr. Ellis declared, “The worst is over.” Although the disease had not entirely run its course in the city, the second wave of influenza was of a much milder strain and the symptoms less serious. In the spring of 1919, the Evening Observer was able to announce that there was “nothing of a particularly alarming character” to report regarding the third appearance of influenza in the area. March saw only 168 cases of “the mild type and of short duration.”

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20 was unlike any other in modern history. The numbers worldwide are staggering: 500,000,000 persons were infected, of which 50,000,000 died. In the United States, one quarter of the population was stricken, killing an estimated 675,000.

The exact number of cases of Spanish Influenza is unknown due to a lack of medical record-keeping for the first few weeks of the outbreak, a period when the disease was not considered “reportable” by the medical profession. A conservative estimate of influenza cases in the City of Dunkirk would be upwards of 1,500 residents infected and 58 deaths. The next epidemics to hit Chautauqua County arrived during the flu seasons of 1957-58, 1968-69 and 2009-10.

Wayne A. Mori is a member of the board of directors of the Dunkirk Historical Society.


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