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When Spanish flu came to Marquette County

The Ishpeming hospital opened in October 1918, shortly before the Spanish flu arrived in the area. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

In light of recent events with the spread of the Covid-19 virus, comparisons are being made with a similar worldwide pandemic from just over a century ago. The accepted origins of the so-called Spanish flu were at Camp Funston (now Fort Riley) in central Kansas in March 1918. Over the course of the month, 1,100 of the camp’s 26,000 soldiers fell ill with a particularly virulent form of influenza and 48 men died.

Recent research suggests that it may actually have originated a few months earlier in Haskell County, Kansas. The influenza outbreak in Haskell County in January 1918 was severe enough that a local doctor alerted the U.S. Public Health Service, even though influenza was not a “reportable” disease at that time. This was the first recorded notice anywhere in the world of unusual influenza activity that year. This recent theory suggests that the flu was a cross between a swine flu and avian or bird flu strains.

After it first reared its head, the flu disappeared from the United States for several months, probably transported to Europe with the deploying soldiers where it continued to spread. It spread from camp to camp, port to port, in crowded troop trains and ships.

Because of censorship due to WWI, the extent of influenza among the combatant nations was rarely reported. Spain, being neutral in the conflict, was not subjected to the same degree of restriction, and actively reported on the disease, particularly when the Spanish king became ill. This gave the impression that the disease started in Spain and led to the name Spanish flu.

Even when the flu returned to U.S. shores, it was again not properly reported for fear of causing a panic. In Philadelphia, the newspapers continued publishing reassurances that influenza posed no danger even as the number of deaths was accelerating. Several articles claimed that the disease killing soldiers was not the same disease that was beginning to spread among the public. Reporters wrote stories about the danger but their editors refused to run the articles.

Doctors urged that a Liberty Loan Drive parade in late September 1918 be canceled to prevent the disease from spreading but the public health director refused. The parade went on as scheduled, exposing nearly 200,000 people to the flu. Two days later, all 31 of Philadelphia’s hospitals were full to capacity. By the end of the week, 2,600 people were dead. The abrupt increase in cases finally forced the authorities to admit that there was in fact an epidemic. By the end, 12,000 Philadelphia residents died.

Influenza first appeared in Michigan around the same time that it appeared in Philadelphia in September 1918 and by mid-October the state Board of Health issued a warning “The disease is disseminated directly from one person to another by coughing or violently talking directly into another’s face. The great danger of influenza is that it is the precursor to pneumonia.” They also made the decision to add influenza to the list of reportable diseases, so that the outbreak could be tracked.

A physician at an Army camp in Boston wrote the following description of the disease “These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of LaGrippe or Influenza, and when brought to the Hosp. they very rapidly develop the most vicious type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis” [the term refers to a person turning blue from lack of oxygen] “extending from their ears and spreading all over the face… it is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes… It is horrible…”

Typically elderly people account for the overwhelming number of influenza deaths but 1918 was unique in targeting young adults. It is believed that their stronger immune systems actually harmed them, causing additional tissue damage while trying to fight off the disease. The damage to the victims’ lungs “resembled nothing so much as the lesions from breathing poison gas.”

Warned of the incoming threat, Marquette County began readying itself. Luckily the new Ishpeming hospital was just nearing completion. At the recommendation of local physicians, Ishpeming ordered all public places, including schools, churches be closed and forbade the convening of any fraternal organizations. By Oct. 12, the Red Cross, working with Dr. Drury, the Marquette City Health Officer, arranged to use a building at Northern Normal to isolate cases. All public buildings were also closed in Marquette. Rules were established for ships entering Marquette’s harbor. No crew member could come ashore except for Masters or their delegated officers, with exceptions made for local crew members from flu-free ships who were able to visit their homes with approval.

Despite these precautions, the Spanish flu still arrived in Marquette County. Next week’s article will examine how the community weathered the pandemic.

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