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Dayhoff: A century ago, flu epidemic became history's deadliest plague

In October and November 1918, life ground to a halt during the height of the flu epidemic. Most of the county schools, movie theaters, churches, pool halls, and public meetings were closed. This is from a Nov. 8, 1918 Democratic Advocate article.
In October and November 1918, life ground to a halt during the height of the flu epidemic. Most of the county schools, movie theaters, churches, pool halls, and public meetings were closed. This is from a Nov. 8, 1918 Democratic Advocate article. (Courtesy of the Historical Society Carroll History Journal)

On Tuesday, April 17, folks filled Grace Hall at Grace Lutheran Church in Westminster for a Historical Society of Carroll County Box Lunch Talk about history's deadliest plague, the 1918 influenza epidemic. Award-winning author and historian Eleanor Darcy presented the lecture.

"World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. However, the influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 … attacked one-fifth of the world's population and over 25 percent of the U.S. population and, in a few months, killed more people than any other illness in recorded history," according to information provided by the Historical Society.

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Darcy was assistant editor of the "Papers of Charles Carroll of Carrollton," for 25 years, which won the American Historical Association's Jameson Award in 2005, according to an introduction by the Historical Society Executive Director Gainor Davis.

At the Box Lunch Talk, Darcy explained: "One hundred years ago … the influenza of 1918 was particularly virulent: it struck suddenly … it killed not only the very young, the very old, and those whose health was already compromised but also, and mainly, younger adults aged 20-40, those in the prime of life who usually survive. Pregnant women were particularly at risk and often miscarried."

The flu "quickly encircled the globe infecting about 20 percent of the world's population and killing between 50 and 100 million people in 15 months, more than died from the Black Death in the Middle Ages, more than were killed in World War I and World War II combined. …"

For those who are passionate about freedom of the press and the consequences of the government preventing the press from doing its job; one theory as to why the flu spread so quickly in the U.S., with such deadly force, was the "Sedition Act."

The act, passed by Congress at the request of President Woodrow Wilson, "made it illegal to say or print anything that might limit production or harm the war effort on pain of long imprisonment. Consequently, there was very little mention of the flu epidemic in the newspapers …

"The first Marylander died of influenza on September 22; the following day the first cases were reported at Camp Meade. …"

I first became aware of the 1918 flu epidemic in the late 1950s, when it was discussed in hushed tones at Sunday dinners on my grandparents' farm. My grandfather served in the cavalry and military police during World War I and was stationed at Fort Meade from July 24, 1918 to February 1, 1919. A portion of his service occurred during the height of the epidemic at Fort Meade. Darcy reported that more than 1,000 were ill and quarantined at Fort Meade by September 27, 1918.

On October 12, 1918 Dr. John D. Blake, Baltimore's health commissioner, "finally closed churches, synagogues, pool halls, [and] bowling alleys … This was not greeted with universal acclamation. Cardinal Gibbons grumbled that it did not seem right to close churches while allowing saloons to remain open. Alcohol, a germ killer, seemed beneficial, and 'a great quantity of whiskey' was ordered for the patients at Camp Meade."

So many people died so quickly that "Bodies, protected only by tarpaulins, were dropped at cemeteries. …" Baltimore Mayor Preston "issued a public statement suggesting that bodies not be embalmed and asking families to wash and dress the dead themselves … it was some time before the cause was discovered to be a virus. Aspirin was the only available drug."

According to Darcy, "More American soldiers died of the flu than in battle in World War I."

There is a school of thought among historians that it was the flu — along with the sheer exhaustion from the psychological horror resulting from the war efforts that hastened the end of World War I.

There is another theory that the catalyst that propelled women to win the right to vote was the prominent leadership role that woman played in society dealing with the ramifications of the flu and the huge loss of men from the war. Another theory is that much of Europe adopted socialized medicine as a result of the flu epidemic.

1918 also defined what economic and intergenerational studies historians refer to as the "Lost Generation." The term was first coined by Gertrude Stein. Approximately 100 million of the folks born between 1883 and 1900 died in the several years up through 1918, due in part to the war and influenza.

One thing for sure is that for social and economic historians, 1918 and the end of World War 1 is the intellectual catalyst for revisiting a matrix of complicated social, political, and economic events, of which we are still trying to this day, to figure out and negotiate the ramifications.

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Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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