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Flu Season 1918

Yates Past - February 2006

The more I researched and worked on this article, the more relevant it became to our own time. Bird flu, global pandemic, quarantine, etc. were all terms that applied to my research on the outbreak of “Spanish Influenza” of 1918. Medical researchers recently resurrected the 1918 virus in order to try to develop a vaccination for the bird flu outbreak that may or may not be coming in our own time.

What originally got me interested in this topic were notations in my Great grandfather’s journal (Clarence Fox). He lived in Penn Yan and kept a notebook between 1916 and 1920. In the fall of 1918, alongside his notes on the rumored armistice that would end the Great War in Europe, were these: “epidemic of Spanish influenza in Penn Yan”.....”Thousands of cases and deaths from influenza”...”Churches all closed; influenza the cause”...”Spanish influenza raging; schools closed”. This got me interested enough to dive into the Yates County Chronicle and the Penn Yan Democrat from that time period to see exactly what impact the flu epidemic had on Yates County.

First, a little background information. It was called "Spanish" influenza but it was later determined to have started on an army base in Kansas in March of 1918. Carried to Europe by US soldiers, it ravaged the trenches in Belgium and France through the summer of that year, affecting all armies. It was suspected to be biological warfare introduced by the Germans or a side effect of mustard gas. From Europe it spread around the globe and was brought back to the US by troops coming back from Europe. Starting in Boston and New York City in September, it swept across the country in a matter of weeks killing nearly 700,000 Americans. The peak month was October, when more than 200,000 Americans died from the flu. Globally, an estimated 40 million died from influenza in 1918-1919. Unlike common influenza, it most affected people between the ages of 20 and 40. In some people it struck very quickly. One anecdote told of four women playing bridge in the evening; three were dead from influenza by the next morning. In the worst cases, the flu turned quickly into an aggressive pneumonia. People died from the buildup of fluid in the lungs.

In mid-September, the New York State Health Commissioner issued a statewide warning concerning influenza including the fact there was no known cure. The U.S. Surgeon General released a statement that .... ”Influenza is a crowd disease. Therefore keep out of crowds as much as possible.” There was no indication of concern in the local papers until the first week in October. On October 11th, 30 influenza cases were reported by doctors in Penn Yan and there were ten to twelve new cases being reported each day. At that time, Yates County Health Commissioner, Dr. Joseph T. Cox, ordered an end to all public assemblies until further notice. School was canceled, theaters were closed, churches suspended worship services, public funerals were not allowed for flu victims, and organizations around the county canceled their meetings. Before the order was lifted on November 17th, Dr. Cox himself contracted influenza and died at the age of 52.

Between mid-October and early December, newspaper community columns from all over Yates County included the names of those sick with flu and the names of college students that came home because their colleges closed. By late October, 250 cases were reported in the village of Penn Yan. Elsewhere, Dresden and Rushville were hit especially hard by the epidemic. This comment was in a Rushville column: “No one appears on the street unless it is absolutely necessary. There is no school or church or gatherings of any kind and the days pass slowly with nothing to distinguish one from another with the “flu” the chief topic of conversation and the helping to care for the sick the only alternative left for the well ones.” There were only two doctors in Rushville; one reported making 57 calls in one day.

Caring for the sick was a major concern. There was an acute shortage of doctors and nurses throughout the county. In Penn Yan, four doctors were serving in the Army. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Cox died from the flu on October 24th. By late October five other doctors were reported sick and not seeing patients. This was compounded by the fact that Susannah Hatmaker had closed down her private hospital on East Main Street one month before the influenza epidemic hit in Penn Yan. It was mentioned in the newspapers that entire families were sick and there was no one to care for them. This led to the one positive result of the influenza epidemic in Yates County. Since 1916, there had been a movement underway to build a hospital in Penn Yan, but not much progress had been made. The epidemic created support and financial backing that had not been there earlier. In January of 1919, a month after the last mention of influenza in the local papers, meetings were held to start the ball rolling to build a permanent hospital in Penn Yan. The influenza epidemic of 1918 was the catalyst that resulted in Soldiers and Sailors Hospital opening its doors to patients in 1924.

Soldiers & Sailors Hospital when it opened in 1924

by Rich MacAlpine


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