Was it Spanish Influenza?

After my post on illness at Camp Funston, some of you wondered whether my grandfather was witnessing the Spanish flu. Ever since I began reading his letters, especially the ones from the fall of 1917, I’ve wondered the same.

In writing about the Spanish flu, I realize I belong to a generation that may be the last to know firsthand about this worldwide pandemic of 1918. Many of our grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and their friends fell victim to this virulent form of influenza. In my family, my great Aunt Gene suffered poor health most of her life. Mother told me this was due, in part, to the lingering effects of the Spanish flu.

Influenza had been known for a long time, but was considered a seasonal condition that was largely an irritant, like a mild cold. It could be deadly, but usually only among older patients whose immune systems left them vulnerable to bronchitis or pneumonia.

The Spanish flu was something different. It attacked young adults. The virus often moved directly into the lungs, suffocating and quickly killing its victims. The mobilization of millions of troops to crowded camps in the U.S. and then to the front lines in Europe certainly spread the virus, as did international travel and commerce.

The Spanish flu followed a cyclical path, beginning in a mild form, retreating for weeks, and then returning in ever more lethal forms. John M. Barry has written about the pandemic in his book, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, 2004. Recently, he penned an article, “Journal of the Plague Year,” which ran in the November 2017 issue of Smithsonian. (Thanks, Charlene, for the tip.) Barry has concluded that Camp Funston was the site of early cases in the United States, citing March 4, 1918, as the date of the first reported case. (p. 36) He believes that the virus came to the camp from people either visiting from, or called to service from, Haskell County, in southwestern Kansas. That’s where a doctor noted, in January 1918, a number of severe illnesses that couldn’t be identified. (p. 34)

This takes the story of the great influenza back to January 1918. But were there earlier, milder outbreaks, perhaps during the fall of 1917?

The U.S. Army assembled a group of doctors immediately after the war to contribute to the monumental review of medical practices and diseases known during what they called the “world war.” This study, The Medical Department of United States Army in the World War, Washington: U.S. Army Surgeon General’s Office, 1923-29, is available online @history.amedd.army.mil. (My thanks to Jonathan Casey at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City for calling this to my attention.)

In Volume IX, Chapter 2, “Communicable Diseases,” attention is paid to the general topic of influenza. The authors conclude that “It appears . . . that evidences of epidemic waves of influenza during the war period were noted for: (1) April, 1917; (2) December, 1917, to January, 1918; (3) March to April, 1918; (4) September to October, 1918; (5) January to February, 1919; (6) June to July, 1919.” (p. 84).

But were all these waves the Spanish flu? Barry and these medical writers from the 1920s agree that the answer remains elusive, in part, because different names, in different places, were recorded as the cause of an illness. And, complicating an understanding today, the term “Spanish flu” wasn’t introduced until the middle of 1918. That’s when a major outbreak in Spain, in May of 1918, infected their king (who survived). After that, the illness was popularly known as the Spanish flu.

So, what exactly caused the illnesses that my grandfather witnessed at Camp Funston? It remains a mystery, at least to me. Certainly it was terrifying. Grandpa referred to illnesses and quarantine in almost all his letters from November and December, 1917. He wrote about his buddies running high fevers, one being unconscious, and of watching them be taken to the hospital.

Red Cross new

November 16: “The DeKalb [county] boys that were taken to the hospital Monday was a Castor boy from Wetherby and Hawk(?) boy from Osborn. I was out at the Red Cross wagon when they left. I sure felt sorry. The Castor boy was just a little over 21 years old, and a good boy.”

 He reported the many times he was tested for meningitis, which seems to have caused the most alarm. It may be what is referenced in a letter from a friend back home, to which Grandpa responded:

Victims of Funston 11-13

November 13: “He wanted to know if our co [company] had got that awful disease yet, I think we are the victims of Funston.”

Maybe because he was a company cook, he kept careful note of how many men to feed. At one point in November, a quarter of his company had been taken to the hospital, a drop from 196 to 145 men in a matter of weeks. (Most would return.)

Rumors spread through the camp, and this may have been one.

75% nov 15cropped

November 15: “They say about 75% of the camp is quarantined and lots dying, the ambulances sure are hauling them out of here fast.”

Between November 26 and December 7, Grandpa didn’t send any letters. The last one, excerpted here, provides a window onto his fear and a prelude to what lay ahead for him.

Scared to death 11-26

November 26, ending with: ” and if the boys isn’t sick they are almost scared to death.”

Did he feel that way when he was taken away, soon after Thanksgiving? Identified as a germ carrier, he spent freezing cold nights in an outdoor tent before being sent, on December 7, to the Base Hospital at Fort Riley.

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