This post is the second in a series on the effects of the “Spanish” Flu pandemic in 1918 and 1919. In light of the recent situation with COVID-19, SCARC archivists Anna Dvorak and Larry Landis explore how past epidemics and pandemics have impacted the Oregon State and Corvallis communities.
The name “Spanish Flu” was a misnomer, and for the most part, Oregon newspapers denied the connection and referred to it as the flu or influenza, especially as the pandemic progressed. The name originated from the fact that at the time Spain did not censor news, and the epidemic there was widely publicized, giving rise to the common but totally misleading belief that the virus spread from cases in Spain.
Early on, the flu was compared to the 1889-1890 flu epidemic, referred to at the time as La Grippe, with its similar symptoms and progression. The theory was floated that this previous epidemic gave older people immunity to the “Spanish” Influenza, and explained why this new flu impacted younger people and those who were not previously exposed.
The number of cases and fatality of the strain remains uncertain even today. It is largely believed that there were at least 50 million deaths worldwide, and at least 500,000 of those were in the United States. In Oregon, about 50,000 were diagnosed with the flu and 3,675 died, which was above the national average. However, Corvallis, and Oregon Agricultural College in particular, fared quite well and had much lower fatality rates.
The flu impacted the United States in three waves. The earliest wave originating from a military base in Kansas, the Second Wave started when the virus returned to Boston with soldiers from fighting overseas in August 1918, and the Third Wave, a resurgence of cases in Winter 1919. The flu subsided later that summer. When the flu arrived in the United States, soldiers in Europe had already been taking measures against the flu. As of August 20th, American soldiers “in camp” in the European theatre, were subjected to “gargle parades” first thing in the morning. This antiseptic throat rinse was designed to ward off influenza.
Crowded conditions and the movement of troops during World War I likely contributed to the spread of the 1918 virus around the world. From Europe and Boston it spread, and you can track the spread by tracking the movement of troops. The efficient railway system and steamships made this virus spread even quicker. Furthermore, the war effort exacerbated already existing issues with congregating and large groups of people as people gathered for parades, rallies, and bond drives, and limited medical professionals. Within six weeks of its outbreak in Boston, all of North America was affected.
The first case seems to have arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the middle of September 1918, having arrived from Philadelphia in Washington state as troops moved to Camp Lewis. The first case in Oregon was reported, when it spread from Camp Lewis to Fort Stevens, near Astoria. The mayor of Astoria was quick to quarantine his city, while the city of Portland, being further away, was slower. At first, health officials in Portland relied on a city-wide mask ordinance while residents ignored anti-crowding measures and quarantine laws and continued on as usual. In line with the continued movement of troops through the Northwest, the first case was reported in Portland on October 4 when a sick soldier traveling to Texas was too sick to reach his final destination. Only as cases grew, did push back subside; the toll was too much to ignore.
The next day, the first instance of Oregonians affected by the flu was printed on the front page of The Morning Oregonian on October 5, 1918. In the article titled “Sneezers musn’t stay in theaters – health officer orders the ejection of coughers also,” City Health Officer Dr. George Parrish supported the removal of potentially sick individuals, while not closing the places of gathering themselves. This is likely due to his understanding that “Several persons,” he stated, “have told me of possible cases and several doctors have been reported as having treated cases of Spanish influenza, but inquiry proves that none of the cases was the real thing . . . However, we are taking every possible means to prevent spread of the disease in case it should appear.”
With this emphasis on preventative measures, on October 7, 300 slides were distributed to theaters around the state to educate residents on preventative measures and The Oregonian carried the headline, “Cut Out Sneezing – Doctors War Cry.” Two days later, on the 9th, The Oregonian was still reporting that the “Influenza in City is Under Control,” while the City Health Officer contradicted this statement when he canceled a business trip to Chicago underlying a larger fear.
It was at this time that the course of disease began to differentiate its impact in different communities. For example, Corvallis was ahead of Portland, and they canceled all public gatherings and established a hospital to aid in isolation of new cases. Portland followed suit two days later when the cases in the city were declared at 60 (although they were likely twice that) and the state reported 200 cases. And by the 13th, all hospital beds that could be made available for flu patients in the city were full. Portland saw an influx of people from surrounding rural areas who didn’t have access to the necessary care and from those working in shipyards and other war industries.
The evolution of the pandemic in Corvallis and on the Oregon Agricultural College campus will be discussed in coming weeks.
This post was contributed by Anna Dvorak. Anna is a Processing Archivist and Historian of Science, and serves as SCARC’s social media coordinator.