Friday, May 7, 2010

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Jane S. Taylor, Red Cross nurse, early 1900's [she is the mother of Perry Taylor mentioned below.  Year and location of photo unknown, but it would be ironic if she was nursing in Portland where her son died of the flu].

Towards the end of World War I, as soldiers were returning home, they unsuspectingly carried with them and spread a deadly form of the influenza virus.  This flu hit in two waves--in the fall of 1918 and spring of 1919.  There are some fascinating books that have been written about tracking the history of this strain of the flu that read like a detective novel.  Even today, researchers are still unclear about what causes particular strains to turn deadly.  
American casualties of the war were about 50,000 lives, and deaths in America from the flu pandemic were estimated to be 500,00 to 700,000.  In Oregon 48,146 cases of the flu were reported, and 3,675 of those resulted in death.  Among the dead was my great grandfather, Perry Taylor.  He was a mechanical engineer that set up and serviced equipment in logging camps around the Northwest.  It is assumed that he contracted the virus through his work.  His death certificate indicates that he was only ill for two days before dying in October of 1918 in Portland, Oregon, a week after his 38th birthday.  His daughter, my grandmother, was six years old.  My great grandmother never remarried and raised my grandmother and her two siblings alone.  Other records from around that time show Perry’s family at his wife’s parents‘ place in Coos County, but it is not know if they survived the flu epidemic because they were separated from Perry, or if they were with him in Portland when he died and left after.  
Perry Taylor's wife and children, ca. 1919

It was a frightening time.  In order to avoid exposure to the virus, social gatherings, church services and other events were canceled.  School children were kept home.  People were afraid of getting too close to their neighbors and friends.  Astoria and nearby Fort Stevens experienced over 2,000 cases of flu, with 72 deaths.  (This is a link to the story at the Oregon Historical Society website).  Some areas were hit harder than others.    
In Lincoln County, the Spruce Division soldiers were still at work and living in camps.  Leonard Groth, in his oral history about his time in the Spruce Division here, describes what his Commanding Officer recommended to keep the flu at bay.
“One of my buddies was sent down here, and he worked the whole time in that hospital [located near the Newport High School] during the flu epidemic...of 1918.  He never got the flu, and there was very few of us that ever did get it.  Our Commanding Officer told us, he says, ‘Now,’ he says, ‘if you men are going to be in a room, in a building, or anything of that nature,’ he says, ‘and if any of you smoke or chew,’ he says, ‘don’t hesitate.  Go right ahead, and do it,’ he says.  ‘It’s a pretty good way of keeping the flu away.’  I know my dad, when I was a youngster, if one of us kids got a toothache, he’d just take out his plug of tobacco, and cut off a little chunk, put it in our tooth, and our toothache would leave.  So I guess our Commanding Officer must have known what he was talking about.”
I don’t have the numbers of deaths from the flu epidemic for Lincoln County.  Paul Keady commented in his oral history, “Then off to the east of these two main companies were a couple of hospital tents, and convalescing tents, and isolation tents, where when the flu went through, a few men were moved over there, and a few men died here in Waldport--not very many.”
Beaver Creek dairy farmer, Cliff Phelps, described in his oral history what it was like for the farmers of the area when the flu hit.  “And what year was it?  Wasn’t that when World War I was on?  Yeah, I was just a young fellow.  And this whole community in here got the flu.  And I tell you, it was serious!...It got so you couldn’t hardly get to the barn and back and you’re calling for a neighbor to come and help you, and he was in the same fix.  It just seemed like the whole neighborhood had it at the same time.”
This link to an article from the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper describes the devastating effects the ‘Spanish Flu’ had on one family, the McCarthy’s, during a move from Seattle to Minneapolis, MN.  
The deadly version of the virus eventually played itself out and returned to less virulent varieties, but it left some deep scars in its wake.

[Oral histories from the Lincoln County Historical Society Collections].
Posted by jackie.

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