Saturday, June 17, 2006

Analysis of 1918 Flu in Ithaca

by Donna Eschenbrenner
The Ithaca Journal
June 17, 2006

In October 2005 a group of American scientists announced that they had finished their decade-long task of tracing the genetic sequence of the 1918 influenza virus. It was found to be a bird flu that jumped directly to humans, according to a report in the New York Times.

This 1918 virus was a different strain of bird flu from the H5N1 virus that is infecting birds in Asia, Europe and Africa today, and it is not known how, or when, it moved from birds to humans. What is known are the grim statistics describing the devastating effects of that flu worldwide. In less than a year, 20-40 million people died (some estimates suggest an even higher number) — roughly two to four times the number of casualties from World War I.

In a 10-month period in late 1918 and early 1919, more than half a million Americans were reported dead from the flu. And, surprisingly, a disproportionate number of the victims were healthy young adults, between the ages of 20 and 40.
The effects of this pandemic at a local level are harder to determine. Personal records, such as diaries and correspondence, from this period are scarce. Much historical focus is, understandably, on the devastating world war being fought at the time. However, a recent donation to the archives at The History Center in Tompkins County brings the local story of this worldwide catastrophe to light. A student from Empire State College researched the effects of the 1918 influenza epidemic in Tompkins County, using information such as articles from The Ithaca Journal from October and November 1918, as well as a New York State Health Department report detailing influenza mortality rates. This generous student donated her research materials and her finished paper, and the collection provides a snapshot of the unfolding of this crisis in Tompkins County.

The earliest clippings from The Journal describe the alarming incidence of the flu in major American cities, such as Washington and New York. Its effects on troops too ill to be shipped to Europe were also significant. The first ominous mention of a local resident ill from influenza is on Oct. 5. Within a few days, other references are made, many with what the newspaper called “grip” (or grippe), which is an old-fashioned word for influenza.

School closings, the shutting down of restaurants and bars and other public gathering places, and cancellation of sporting events are reported throughout other parts of the country. But local health department figures dismiss the value of such precautions here, instead saying that residents should go about their regular daily schedules, paying particular attention to cleanliness and healthy living, and avoiding sick people.

Then, rather abruptly on Oct, 8, The Journal reports 300 cases of the flu in Ithaca, and the opening of Cascadilla Hall on the Cornell campus as an overflow hospital for the university's infirmary. As the days progress, more and more mentions are made of people taken ill throughout the county. By the next week the epidemic is thought to be on the decline, although there were “several hundred patients being treated at the Cornell Infirmary, the City Hospital, and in their homes.” Shopkeepers, many with staff out sick, were having a hard time keeping their stores open.

Later in October, the county health board opens the Masonic Hall as an overflow hospital to assist the City Hospital, which was full. But county health officers reported “the situation as a whole is not considered unduly alarming.”

Yet more deaths are reported from flu and pneumonia, and later, a total of 600 cases were reported in the city of Ithaca alone. Again, local health officers dismiss the option to close down public places — “...it is believed nothing would be gained from such a procedure.” A shortage of nurses was also reported.

This pattern repeats itself throughout subsequent pages of Journal clippings: Health officers are quoted reporting “improvement” in the situation, while personal columns and obituary pages are reporting illness and death from flu and pneumonia.

Tragedy dealt families repeated blows — two adult sisters died within an hour of each other, one at City Hospital and one at her home in Trumansburg. One Town of Ithaca family was almost completely wiped out: Four children and their mother all succumbed within a two-month period, leaving a devastated husband and father to grieve alone.

The final figures on illness and mortality were high for this small county of 35,000 people in those years — roughly 140 died, and, while the number of sick was never fully calculated, it was certainly in the thousands.

It is impossible to determine whether a different approach by local health officers would have mitigated the tragedy in the county — many areas that did implement isolation and quarantine procedures also suffered terrible losses. But those of us who are interested in the lessons of history are grateful to at least have the opportunity, through this collection of historic materials, to examine the facts for ourselves.

Donna Eschenbrenner is the archivist at The History Center in Tompkins County.

Copyright ©2006 The Ithaca Journal

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