For many of my citizens, including myself, 2018 brought their fair share of flu, bronchitis and other seasonal problems. Washington…
For many of my citizens, including myself, 2018 brought their fair share of flu, bronchitis and other seasonal problems.
Washington County, and in fact, the rest of the Cumberland Valley has formed their relationship to disease and disease from the beginning of the European settlement.
The valley’s low-noise nature allows traps to provide heat and moisture, leading to high waterborne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoidosis. These diseases were so common that they were called “children‘s summer injuries” of local newspapers, and even caused major delays in the construction of the C & O channel. Due to its location along major trade routes, the area was as vulnerable to global epidemics as many of the larger metropolitan areas.
However, a pandemic remains to a large extent in local history: the 1
918 outbreak of Spanish influenza, also known as the 1918 Influenza Outbreak. While the world was already involved in World War I, a virulent flu strain spread like a firepowder, which brings massive victims to both soldiers and civilians.
Aging soldiers took home to convalesize spreading the disease to the United States, and eventually, to Washington County, where it made a major impact on both social and cultural levels. But what was the Spanish flu, and what did it do?
The name Spanish flu is a bit of a dissatisfaction – the flu actually does not originate in Spain, and it was not identified there. Many of the European countries that participated in the war began to see the flu downturns at the same time, but their governments had adopted a war-time ban.
In hopes of keeping morale stable and not wanting to give a national panic, these countries suppressed news about the disease for as long as they could. Spain, however, had no such restrictions on the press, and the Spanish press reported on this dangerous new disease. As a result, Spain was wrongly identified for many years as the source of the outbreak.
In my opinion, the term “flu” is something of a dissatisfaction with modern culture. For most of us, the flu will not be a life-threatening experience (although it feels like one). Typical annual outbreaks of the flu target mostly those with lower immune strength, such as children, illness and elderly.
The complete opposite was true with the Spanish flu. Those who had the strongest immune system were most affected during the outbreak, especially those in the ages of 18 to 40 – which meant that the most involved in the war effort.
The mortality rate of the disease was estimated to be about 20 percent, much higher than a typical flu. And unlike most cases of influenza, the Spanish tension affected the lungs, causing a severe pulmonary inflammatory effect in the victims. Without modern medicine or medical equipment, including antibiotics and antiviral drugs, healthcare professionals could provide some help as patients slowly drowned to death as fluid was build up in their lungs.
So what did the Spanish flu look like when it hits Washington County? At that time, Washington County was something of a contradiction. Many money had come to the county in a short period of time, and manufacturing and industry had been strongly promoted. However, much of that income would not be invested in society and public health until after the First World War.
The widespread Washington County Hospital System and its School of Nursing had just settled in their new home at Old Kee Mar Women’s College, on Antietam Street, and finally had the ability to accept cases of infectious disease.
City of Hagersown had not yet installed a municipal sewage system, and City Park was still home to farms and factories. So while citizens considered themselves American from the 20th century, they would find out that like many other American cities and cities, they were incredibly unprepared for a global epidemic.
The Washington Greeks had already been familiar with the Spanish flu of time the first cases occurred in the area. The local newspapers, including The Morning Herald and The Daily Mail, reported a lot on international events, and news audits played in one of the county’s many cinemas would have educated citizens about the epidemic on their way.
By that time, many of the area’s doctors would have served abroad, leading to a lack of medical staff available to participate in influenza patients. It had still been unusual to seek a hospital for the treatment of infectious disease, which meant that many county citizens waited until late to seek medical treatment. and although enough doctors and nurses had been available, there was very little that they could offer in the way of treatment. While the term flu had been around for centuries, the virus itself would not be specifically isolated and identified until the 1930s. The Spanish flu was actually identified retroactively as flu.
Thousands of Washington County became ill, with hundreds of local citizens dieing. While many cases were likely to begin in late August or early September, the outbreak reached its peak in October, with local newspapers covering stories of death and delirium caused by the flu. Government officials and county officials took emergency measures during the months of October and November 1918 to limit the disease, which meant that there were no public gatherings. For the citizen, it meant that the public school was interrupted and the theaters were closed. For the first time in more than 50 years, the Great Hagerstown Fair was interrupted. This particularly relates to the severity of the 1910’s situation at the fair, and it was the largest bird watching in North America.
What caused the end of the flu also left a chilling and macabre epilogue for local citizens. A cold snap in November was killed by the virus, which effectively ceased the global pandemic. This meant, however, that the land froze early in Washington County and leave cemeteries that can not bury the large number of bodies left in the wake. Some cemeteries, such as Hagerstown’s Rose Hill Cemetery, still retain photographs taken from 1918 when the coffins were on the gates and stretched down to South Potomac Street.
As an interesting end note, the exact flu that caused the extra virulent 1918 eruption was not identified until almost 100 years later. The team of researchers in the 1990s and early 2000s struggled to find existing samples of the Spanish flu outbreak for testing. Viable tests for testing were finally found among the graves of Inuit influenza victims in Alaska whose population is decimated during the epidemic. The test of these samples revealed that the Spanish flu was most closely related to modern strains of H1N1, which we know as both avian and swine flu.
Anna Cueto is a curator at the Washington County Historical Society.