Wednesday, January 09, 2008


When journalists talk about the possible “bird flu” epidemic, the
historical event they draw parallels to is the Great Influenza
outbreak of 1918. But by the fall of that year there had not been
any large number of cases since the spring.

Then on 8 Sept. 1918 the first case was reported at Camp Devens
in Ayer, Massachusetts. By the end of the month there were
14,000 cases of the illness and over 700 deaths attributed to it.
Camp Devens was placed under quarantine but the whole state
of Massachusetts was already swept by the disease as the
figures on this site shows.

Camp Devens’ hospital surely was not meant to deal with such a
catastrophic event and the accounts I’ve read while horrific must
pale in comparison to what my grandfather must have seen and
experienced. I wonder what he must have thought as he went
about his duties at the hospital. Growing up he must have heard
about the diptheria outbreak that had caused the deaths of six
relatives forty years before. Now he was in the midst of
something much worse where hundreds could die in a single night.
Did he wonder when he himself might begin to show symptoms
and end up a patient himself?

And yet he survived and was given a furlough at the end of
November. From what I’ve read, the epidemic began and
expanded quickly but subsided within a month and a half. By the
end of October it was over for the most part and by November
the authorities must have felt it was safe enough to allow Private
West a furlough to visit home in early December.

I can’t imagine they would have allowed it if he’d been stricken
with the pneumonia during the height of the epidemic, so my
guess is that he came down with it sometime after he returned to
Camp Devens. The Army doctors must have felt the damage to his
lungs was sufficient to keep him from his duty as a hospital
orderly and so my grandfather was given an honorable discharge
on 12Mar 1919.

Some soldiers in World War I saw hell on a battlefield.

Others, such as my grandfather, saw another sort of hell in
hospital wards full of comrades racked with the Spanish Influenza.

I used a variety of sources researching this post. One of them is
“Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During
World War I” by Carol R. Byerly, (NYU Press, 2005) which you
can preview at GoogleBooks.

1 comment:

Terry Thornton said...

Thanks, Bill, for such an interesting article. I followed the link above to statistics and found that each region and state has a separate page. Thanks for link --- I found some interesting material about Mississippi there.