• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

One of the greatest casualties of the First World War was information. A devastating H1N1 influenza virus broke out early in 1918. Even though it originated, some now speculate, in Haskell County, Kansas, the virus became known as “Spanish Flu” (the Spanish called it “the French Flu”; Germans, “blitzkatarrh”). Its worldwide havoc resembled the bubonic plague of the high Middle Ages. And yet in 1918, and even today, people failed to take it seriously.

Many sufferers had typical symptoms: three days of fever, drippy nose, achy bones, followed by a slow recovery. Others it struck like poison: knockout fever, bloody sputum, lungs filled with a reddish fluid. Then the body, deprived of oxygen, turned dark blue, the feet black, and people died. During the height of the pandemic, doctors divided incoming cases into two groups: those with pale skin and those with cyanosis, or blue skin. They sent the latter to a death ward. They were already gone.

The virus struck with heretofore unseen swiftness. In November 1918, four women played bridge in a screened sun-porch at Albuquerque, New Mexico, convinced that the fresh air and the six-ply cheesecloth masks they wore would make them safe. The next day, three were dead. The fourth, after a bout with the flu, lived to a ripe old age.

Original estimates ranged between 20 and 40 million people killed worldwide. But since between 17 and 20 million died in India alone, current thinking puts that number between 50 and 100 million. One-third of the world’s population became infected. Unlike any before, but similar to today’s swine flu, the virus was particularly lethal in the 20–40 age group. “They’d be sick one day and gone the next,” wrote poet/M.D. William Carlos Williams, “just like that, fill up and die.”

The Sun, and San Diegans in September 1918, ignored welling statistics on the east coast and in Europe. “San Diego is full of colds, just now,” said the Sun. To avoid infection: steer clear of “secretions of the nose and throat passages, conveyed on handkerchiefs, towels, cups, and mess-gear.” If you come down with the flu, just “treat it as a bad cold,” and be sure to “take Dover’s Powders.” The story, which promised “All the Facts About Spanish Influenza,” was actually an advertisement.

“We simply fail to regard influenza with the degree of seriousness it deserves,” writes Pete Davies in The Devil’s Flu. “We confuse it with the common cold, and we talk about a ‘flu bug going round’ as if it were no more than the viral equivalent of an itch or a scratch. Yet just [90] years ago, it killed maybe two percent of all the people in the world.”

Around the time of the Sun ad, sailors at the Balboa Park naval-training camp and soldiers at Camp Kearny came down with the flu. Medical authorities at Kearny assured San Diegans that the symptoms were “the common garden variety.” They attributed the first deaths to complications from other causes. By early October both facilities, along with Fort Rosecrans and North Island, went under quarantine.

On October 10, Dr. Peter Remondino, 62-year-old president of the health board, wrote an article in the Union pleading with people to take the virus seriously. This disease, he said, “is more virulent and more murderous than any epidemic the nation has yet experienced.”

Remondino urged San Diegans to give doubtful cases “the benefit of the doubt, as if [they] were full of bacilli, as an innocent-looking Picardy retreat may be full of nests of Prussian machine guns.”

Led by Remondino, on October 13, the Board of Health recommended closure of public amusements indefinitely — theaters, churches, dance halls, schools, libraries, movie houses. They also had the fire department set up stations where people could have their throats sprayed with quinine bisulphate. At least some San Diegans heeded the advice: the booth at Horton Plaza ran out of the bitter-tasting “Aunty Flu” remedy almost daily.

On October 18, the Board of Health “insisted” that San Diegans wear gauze masks when going outside. These were easy to make: cut a square of fine mesh, white gauze, 14 1/2 x 14 1/2 inches; fold in four thicknesses; tie the mask snugly around the head; tape down exposed corners. Though many who worked with the public donned them, most San Diegans treated the masks, the Union reported, as a “joke.” The board could only recommend or insist. The power of enforcement lay with the city council.

On October 20, San Diego had 329 total cases of the flu and 11 deaths. Four days later: 488 and 18. During that time, Harry Smelser of Fallbrook went to San Diego for jury duty. He developed flu symptoms. His wife Dot came to care for him. Harry recovered. Dot caught the virus and died.

An editorial in the Union on October 21 said that while masks were okay for Greek tragedy, today “only highwaymen, burglars, and holdup men wear them professionally.

“We sincerely regret,” the editorial concluded, “that some of the young women in public employment are compelled to wear these masks. We miss their pretty faces.”

On November 17, the virus — at the time restricted to downtown and the waterfront — began to wane, and the Board of Health lifted the restrictions against public amusements. Twelve days later, 100 new cases appeared, including eight deaths in two days. Dr. Remondino, known to all as “Rem,” came out of retirement. He turned the Old Mission Brewery, at the foot of Washington Street, into an emergency isolation hospital. According to historian Jerry MacMullen, who was one of them, “Rem proudly related that he did not lose a single patient.”

Throughout 1918, the flu pandemic competed with the “War to End All Wars” for attention. Headlines with three-inch letters — five, for the Armistice on November 11 — elbowed influenza statistics onto the second page. Even though, as John M. Barry writes, the flu “killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years,” and even though the most common victims were often the healthiest, including pregnant women, the virus never shook its status as la grippe, three achy days and home free.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

More from the web

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close