Local History: Our Town – Our Story: The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918

by Ann KoppyBeaverton-Historical-Society-logo

Its medical name is influenza A (H1N1), but is better known as the Spanish flu. Ninety-eight years after its appearance, the 1918-19 pandemic is identified as the baseline against which all viral outbreaks are measured. It occurred in three waves and its numbers are staggering: 20,000,000-50,000,000 deaths worldwide, about 675,000 in the United States, and 3,600 in Oregon, although the exact toll will never be known. Record keeping was inexact and public health departments weren’t required to report cases until six months after the initial outbreak.

Scientists and doctors had just begun to understand microorganisms caused diseases, but not that that viruses caused flu, believing that a bacterium was the source. There were no drugs or vaccines to treat or prevent this killer. Life expectancy in the U.S. was 53-54 and the mortality rate was highest among 15-35 year old age group although it’s still unclear why they were more susceptible. No one was immune, however.

The flu was first recorded at an Army base in Kansas in spring 1918. From there it rapidly spread throughout the civilian population that summer, although this first wave is considered a relatively mild outbreak. Coughing, fatigue, aches, and fever went away after a few days. The second wave was transported to Europe, especially to Spain, apparently by military personnel aboard troop ships. From there it spread, mutating on its journey to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. Infected people experienced extreme fever, headache, blue skin, vomiting, inflamed lungs, violent cough, and bleeding from mouth, nose, and ears. The third wave occurred in spring 1919. By that summer the pandemic was gone. The infected had died or survivors developed immunity.

The highly virulent disease that was given other names–la grippe, Spanish lady, sand fly fever– took lives two ways. Death either came quickly—a victim with no symptoms in the morning succumbed by evening—or from aftereffects that included pneumonia. The crisis was worsened by a shortage of health care providers because many doctors and nurses were serving overseas during World War I or they, too, had become ill. Beaverton resident Mary Welter was about 24 when she completed her nurses’ training at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland in 1918, where she remained employed because of scarcity of nurses and overwhelming number of patients.

Federal, state, and local officials mobilized to prevent its spread, urging the public to wear gauze masks or drink alcohol. Theaters, sporting events, saloons, mail delivery, and garbage pickup were closed or delayed. Beaverton residents faced the same restrictions. Public gatherings were banned, schools closed, church services suspended, and sick individuals quarantined. People in particularly rural areas without access to medical care created their own, believing that eating raw onions, wearing camphor around the neck, or shoveling sulfur on hot coals would ward off the disease. Dr. C.E. Mason, the town’s only physician, urged anyone suffering from la grippe to stay at home, keep windows and doors open, and avoid unnecessary trips to the crowded streets of Portland.

The flu hit hard and it hit quickly, affecting one-third of the global population. Where it went and why it mutated are questions that have yet to be irrefutably answered.

Interested in more local history? Visit the Beaverton History Society or go to: www.historicbeaverton.org