Photo by Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons
December 5, 1918: Treat any sickness “as a bad cold” and “take Dover’s Powders.”
It was a municipal battle of life and death, witnessed by the frightened citizenry of century-ago San Diego, crowded into the musty confines of city hall, an ornate Victorian building at the corner of Fifth and G Street in what is today called the Gaslamp Quarter.
The date was December 5, 1918. Three months before, San Diegans had barely shrugged at the disease that was about to engulf their city, taking hundreds of lives.
TARAPONGS / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
“San Diego is full of colds, just now,” said a September advertisement in the San Diego Sun headlined “All the Facts About Spanish Influenza.” Avoid “secretions of the nose and throat passages, conveyed on handkerchiefs, towels, cups, and mess-gear.” Treat any sickness “as a bad cold” and “take Dover’s Powders.”
But while the population remained complacent, the virus responsible for what came to be known as the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918 was silently spreading, aided by the personal mobility brought on by World War I and poor military hygiene.
An October 1, 1918 memo from a Navy senior medical officer, entitled “Appearance of Influenza among draft of 95 apprentice seaman en route from Memphis, Tennessee, to San Diego Naval Training Station, San Diego, California,” described a host of unsanitary conditions ideal for sowing the virus across the country.
Dr. Remondino took charge of an improvised hospital located in the Mission Brewery at the foot of Washington Street where most of the patients were being treated with garlic and red wine.
San Diego Historical Society
“[A] Party of 95 apprentice seaman... entrained Thursday, September 26 at Memphis in two old type Pullman tourist sleepers. The cars were both in very bad shape,” said the document.
“The water tank in one car was leaking so that the entire floor of the car was wet. The toilet was out of order; no ice and only a limited amount of water was obtainable to wash with on the entire trip.
‘The Chief Machinist Mate reported that at Kansas City he protested to the railroad officials concerning the condition of the two cars, requesting that the men be transferred to other sleepers. This request was denied.
“He reports that the first two cases of influenza appeared Saturday morning September 28. He immediately took steps to isolate the two men in the rear of the car, however, the disease spread rapidly so that on arrival there were 54 men afflicted with symptoms of influenza of varying degree. “
Camp Kearny, 1917
San Diego Historical Society
By October, the Army was acting at Camp Kearny north of town. “A general quarantine was placed over the entire camp October 9, 1918, and on this date a detention camp was established, where everyone entering camp was held for five days and examined daily,” according to a report in the archives of the Army Department of Medical History.
“All indoor amusement halls and exchanges were closed 14 days after the first case was reported.
“Gauze masks were worn by everyone in camp from November 2 to November 12, inclusive.
“A convalescent camp was established for patients returning from the hospital where they were excused from all duties for two days, and then gradually returned to full duty.
“When this camp had to be abolished on account of its location and the inclement weather, all patients returning to their organizations were placed at the end of their company streets and excused from duty as they had been while in the convalescent camp. All men were supplied with sufficient clothing.”
But by that point, there was no limiting the illness to come for many of San Diego’s unwary citizens.
“By the end of the third week in October, the number of [San Diego] cases had risen to over 200 and deaths were being reported daily,” noted the Union-Tribune’s Richard Crawford in a 2008 history of the epidemic. “Dr. Ernest Chartres-Martin, the City Health Officer, announced: ‘We do not wish to unduly alarm people, but we have a situation which must be recognized. The influenza has not been stopped, or even been curbed.’
San Diego Union, 1918
“South of San Diego, the flu felled workers building the Lower Otay Dam on the Sweetwater River. East of the city in the high desert of the Carrizo Gorge, construction on the San Diego Arizona Railway nearly halted when the flu struck. One hundred cases were reported in the work camps in October, twelve of them fatal.”
In late October, the San Diego board of health, urged on by Chartres-Martin, mandated that masks like those used by the Army be worn to counter the fast-moving disease.
“The police department has been asked to cooperate in the enforcement of this order, which is designed to stop the spread of Spanish influenza,” said a Los Angeles Times report of October 25. “The Red Cross will supply the masks to be worn here.”
“Members of the board of health at first advocated the arrest of any person appearing without a mask,” the Union reported the same day.
“This afterwards changed to a request that the police ‘send home’ anyone violating this rule. Members of the board say they were advised that this action may legally be taken without special ordinance enacted by the common [city] council.”
“Dr. Chartres-Martin, city health officer, says that the new order will be strictly enforced. ‘We realize that it will be difficult for the population to equip itself with masks by midnight tomorrow,’ he said, ‘but it must be done. The Red Cross will supply all who apply with patterns for making the masks.’”
“The public is urged by Health Officer E.P. Chartres-Martin to refrain from indulging in social gatherings of all kinds and to devote as much time as possible to outdoor exercise and recreation. All homes should be kept well ventilated,” said an October 11 Evening Tribune report.
“The order hits the vaudeville houses hardest, as all those engaged for the coming week at both the Savoy and the Hippodrome had to be notified by telephone or telegraph that they could not be used.”
But Chartres-Martin and his colleagues turned out to be mistaken. The city offered little or no enforcement assistance, leaving the health board with nothing but moral suasion to carry out its mandate, and the virus continued its spread. Only after weeks of growing fatalities did the matter of mandatory quarantine, business curbs, and mask-wearing finally begin to coalesce.
In mid-October Chartres-Martin’s fellow physician Peter C. Remondino, a health board member, issued an ultimatum to the city council: pass a mandatory mask ordinance accompanied by stringent business closures or the board might call for a state quarantine of the city.
There was pushback from the San Diego Union, among other downtown business interests, loath to disrupt the city’s growing tourist trade and other enterprises with inconvenient health threats.
“Only highwaymen, burglars, and holdup men wear them professionally,” said an October 18 Union editorial against the masks. “We sincerely regret that some of the young women in public employment are compelled to wear these masks. We miss their pretty faces.”
Taking its lead from the paper, the city council rejected the health board’s proposed regulations, causing county coroner Schuyler Kelley and Dr. W.W. Crawford to quit.
“This is not the time to stand from under,” Chartres-Martin told Crawford. “This is the time to see the city through. I’ll see the council damned before I resign.”
“On Saturday, November 30, Chartres-Martin and Remondino, both of whom were recovering from the flu, met with fellow [health board] members John Buerkle and newly appointed Senator Leroy A. Wright at Remondino’s home,” notes Jeff Smith in a 2009 Reader account of the 1918 pandemic.
“They wrote a two-pronged emergency resolution: quarantine schools, churches, and public amusements; give the Board of Health the power to enforce the edict. On Monday, they brought their proposal to the city council.”
On the fateful day of the hearing, opponents lined up to speak against the measures and question the integrity of their sponsors.
Roland Dowell, representing the small city’s motion picture exhibitors, lashed out at the establishment physicians who were calling for a virtual lockdown of the city. “And perhaps some of the doctors are rather glad to have an epidemic, as I’ve heard they’re charging ‘flu’ patients $5 a visit, and other patients only $3.”
“That’s a low down, diabolical lie!” screamed Chartres-Martin. “If this man will meet me on the street and repeat his statement, he’ll be in the hospital, or I will!”
“If the council will do nothing not approved by the theater managers! If such is the case, there’s no use in the health board trying to do anything.”
Chartres-Martin — who was born in Cardiff, Wales on October 7, 1886, and came to San Diego in 1912 — had reason to be upset. He had suffered a personal loss in the pandemic when his stepfather, Dr. William P. Williamson, died of the flu in October 1918.
“In the last seven days, we have had over 600 new cases and 42 deaths. We’re doing our best to cope. It’s time the council did its share!” said the doctor.
As a result of the physician’s plea, along with backdoor lobbying and pressure from state health officials who threatened to override the city, the council finally acted.
“San Diego Shut Tight,” said a headline over a December 5 dispatch in the Los Angeles Times.
“The most rigid quarantine measures that have been imposed on any city during the influenza epidemic will go into effect at Midnight in San Diego,” the story said.
“The quarantine terms provide for the closing of all schools, churches, lodges and societies, barber shops, soda fountains, candy and cigar stands, all wholesale or retail businesses excepting those handling food, drugs, doctors supplies, stock supplies, fuel and all manufacturing establishments, excepting those pronounced essential.”
Noting that “newspapers are included in the essential list of manufacturers,” the story went on to say that “all persons dealing with the public must wear masks.”
“There were 166 new cases of the disease today and six deaths resulting from it.”
On December 6, the day after the council’s approval of the Draconian move, “San Diego looked like the deserted village,” said a Los Angeles Times dispatch, “as citizens and police authorities united in a desperate effort to stamp out the flu by the drastic quarantine put into effect last midnight.”
“Shops and places of business were closed, but necessities ordered by telephone were delivered from the stores. The few places permitted to be open could only be entered by persons wearing masks,” according to the story, headlined “Only Maskers Enter.”
“Many unusual sights were seen. In front of one of the large butcher shops was stationed a big police officer who warned each customer before entering to don a flu mask. On one of the bank buildings was a placard placed there by the president. ‘You cannot enter without a mask.’
“An extra squad of police assisted the regular force explaining the rigid quarantine and warning persons as to its fulfillment. Tomorrow there will be no warnings, but arrests will be made for violation of the ordinance.”
Tourists received no special dispensation. “The lobbies of the hotels have been robbed of all chairs and seats and guests were chased to their rooms by authorities and proprietors. Shoeshine parlors, like soda fountains, were closed tight. Citizens must shine their shoes and go without drinks, either soft or otherwise until the ban is raised.”
Chartres-Martin had ultimately prevailed, but there was no rejoicing. It wasn’t the first time the council had been warned, and many lives had been lost.
For Remondino, too, it was a bittersweet moment. During the 1870s, the Italian-born physician — trained at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia — had been the first president of San Diego’s board of health and had been county physician for several terms.
A civil war veteran, with a collection of 250 guns, swords, sabers, lances, and armor, some described him as picturesque, intellectually audacious, egocentric, genius and eccentric,” notes George W. Kaplan in a biography for the San Diego Journal of History, Summer and Fall, 2015.
“He was known to have trained crickets. He would often venture out for an evening walk in a blue French military cloak with one side thrown over a shoulder to show the inner red lining while wearing a Derby hat and carrying a cane.”
Remondino grew famous for authoring The History of Circumcision from the Earliest Times to the Present, for which his enemies labeled him “a dilettante or a quack,” according to Kaplan.
“The book was very popular; its first printing in 1891 sold over 50,000 copies resulting in a second printing in 1900,” writes Kaplan. “Reportedly over a half million copies were sold. It was reprinted in 1974, 2001, and 2008.
“At 346 pages, this tome was considered to have almost singlehandedly popularized circumcision in the United States at a time when the intact foreskin was the norm and circumcision was an aberration,” the biographer adds.
“Remondino performed the surgery on adult men many times. He wrote, ‘In adults with a very narrow, thin, not overlong prepuce, a very good result often follows…I have repeatedly performed it on lawyers, book-keepers, clerks, and even laboring men, who have gone from the office to the courts, counting rooms, or stores without the least resulting inconvenience or loss of time.’ He was such an enthusiast for circumcision that some called the operation ‘Remondino’s Procedure.’”
“Given his previous military experience, Remondino’s practice was weighted toward surgery,” according to Kaplan. Gunshot wounds were an occasional occurrence in his practice and at least two of his cases were reported in the local newspaper.
“In 1875, he treated William Gregg after a shootout on Fifth Avenue and D Street that resulted from a difference of opinion about a lawsuit. In 1877, Dr. Remondino was called to treat G.F.W. Richardson, whose thigh was shattered by a gunshot wound in an altercation with the superintendent of the water works; the wound was severe enough to necessitate amputation.
“Remondino’s reputation extended beyond the confines of San Diego; he was once called to Ensenada to operate on a patient with a cyst of the pancreas caused by Echinococcus, a parasitic tapeworm that sometimes affects sheepherders.”
Remondino emerged from retirement at age 72 to meet the flu pandemic threat, according to Kaplan. “He took charge of an improvised hospital located in the Mission Brewery near Five Points [at the foot of Washington Street] where most of the patients, Italians, were being treated with garlic and red wine.
“In 1922 Remondino was injured in an automobile accident at Tenth Avenue and B Street in which he sustained cuts about the head and face. At age 78, he sustained a stroke and developed cardiac failure but remained alert. He continued his literary work from his bed until a second stroke resulted in his death two months before his 81st birthday.”
Chartres-Martin, an avid yachtsman who co-founded the Southwestern Yacht Club on Point Loma in 1925, lived on until 1961. He is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park.
By the time the pandemic ended, 366 San Diegans were reported dead, out of a population of 75,000. Over 500,000 died in the United States, with more than 20 million deaths reported worldwide.
For San Diego, the epidemic peaked in December, with 2039 cases and 188 deaths, according to Crawford. The order to wear masks ended on Christmas Eve, 1918.