At the moment, I’m doing research into the progress of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in the US, specifically in the Los Angeles California area, for background in a novel that’s set in the 1930s. If you were an adult in the 30s, you had probably lived through the infamous “Spanish” flu, And let me tell you, some of the details are tragic, strange, damned weird, and some of the suggested “cures” make our recent spate of whackdoodleness look quite ordinary (wearing red, slicing onions, breathing chlorine fumes, wearing a bag of camphor around your neck, taking five times the recommended dose of aspirin… just to name a few.)
The progress of the Autumn 1918 variant that was so lethal was first noted by the US Navy, specifically in Boston, August 29 1918, when three sailors from a ship newly-arrived from Europe were sent to sickbay with symptoms of influenza. By September 3, there were civilian cases in Boston and the surrounding area. Naval bases took strict quarantine measures quickly, but the horse had already fled the barn. According to the Schenectedy Digital History Archive’s series on how the epidemic effected that city (https://www.schenectadyhistory.org/health/morris/3.html):
The Navy tried vainly to stop the epidemic from depleting its ranks. After a successful quarantine of the Naval Training Station on Goat Island in San Francisco Bay, in which not one case of influenza was reported, Naval Surgeons could do nothing but shrug when men released from the confinement and given liberty in San Fransisco contracted the disease. Indeed, they could not keep the men confined forever. Overall, the Navy had reported 120,000 cases, nearly one fourth of its total strength, with 5,000 dead. (11)
The Army, with approximately ten times the manpower of the Navy, suffered over 25,000 deaths in the United States. (12) The epidemic peaked among Army personnel during the week of October 11, two weeks later than in Navy. This later peak is attributed to the inland location of most army bases. The mobilized Army also spread influenza more rapidly than it would have if America was at peace. Many outbreaks throughout the Mid-West and the South can be traced to troop movements between different camps.
What’s really striking to me is that the Navy’s fatality rate is so much higher than the Army’s. I know it doesn’t look it on casual glance, but note that the Army had “ten times the manpower of the Navy” so, if they’d had the same fatality rate, the numbers should have been more like 5,000 Navy and 50,000 Army, or 2,500 Navy to 25,000 Army. My conclusion is the necessary crew density of naval vessels lead to literally double the deaths. The Army spread it more, but the Navy had it worse.
And that brings me to Los Angeles, which didn’t have an Army base per se, but it did have a Navy yard and a Naval Reserve Station (the Los Angeles Harbor, as it was then known, is actually 18 miles away from downtown in San Pedro/Long Beach, but much of the story I’m working on takes place in and around those harbor towns and, due to the usual Los Angeles rigging, the harbor is attached to and part of the city by a long, narrow swath of land called the Downey Extension). And in spite of that, the infection and death rate in Los Angeles was lower than that in other towns with Navy bases (except for Seattle, which had the lowest fatality-rate of Navy towns, but that’s not part of this story).
Part of the explanation lies in the timing; as the epidemic swept on, it moved from East to West, and from Mid, to Southern, to Northern tier, like a bouncing ball, so L.A. got it late in game, when virulence was dropping (a bit.) And part of it is the fact that the Los Angeles metropolitan area was then, as it is now, very large, widespread, and full of pockets of extreme low-density. The topography breaks up livable areas, there was still a lot of agriculture taking up space, and Angelinos like to spread out, which probably contributed as much to the lower infection and fatality numbers as anything else did. Populations were lower then, sure, but the population of Los Angeles at the time was 570,000 people spread over 502 square miles , and that’s still a lot less dense than the 500,000 people packed into 46.9 square miles of San Francisco in 1918, which had a death rate almost 125% that of Los Angeles. But in spite of the Naval Ship Yard on San Pedro Bay, Los Angeles developed the epidemic late—the first cases being recorded at a Polytechnic High School in downtown on September 22 1918, almost a month after it was detected at the Boston naval base. (I can’t find any mention of where the students might have caught it.)
The Navy had already instituted quarantine measures on all bases, and officially closed the Naval Reserve Station in L.A. Harbor on September 28, and the Army quarantined the Arcadia Balloon School (yes, balloons) at the same time, although neither base had any recorded cases. (See The Influenza Archive’s page for Los Angeles: https://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-losangeles.html).
The cities of Los Angeles, San Pedro, Long Beach, Pasadena, and others got together and set some guidelines on October 10, some of which were the sort of thing that you’d only need in Hollywood (no filming crowd or mob scenes, no spectators allowed onto film shoots, and especially no boxed lunches for said spectators), and the rest were pretty much what you’d expect. And even with various missteps, weirdness, human folly, and all the rest, the deadly 1918 wave of the epidemic was over by late January of 1919 and the Los Angeles area got off (relatively) lightly with a death toll of 2,713, or 494 per 100,000 population (per Los Angeles Times https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-16/los-angeles-spanish-flu-coronavirus).
And why do I care?
Well, the protagonist was thirteen during the epidemic, and his mother died in early 1919. While he’s convinced her death was suspicious, I began to wonder why no one else would have thought so, and how she came to be under a doctor’s care at the time—most illnesses and deaths, like most births, still happened at home, even among the wealthy. I hadn’t mentioned the epidemic in the current WoS (Work on Submission). Now that I’m starting on the second story, the fate of the protagonist’s mother is relevant, so I began to think “what if her death was attributed to the flu?” I’ve done a lot of reading in the past about the 1918 flu, but I’m having to go back and do some more, and more specific, reading about the epidemic in Los Angeles and Long Beach. On the one hand, I do love research and history. On the other… this is some depressing shit.
The 1918 Influenza epidemic lasted four months. It is the worst mass-death event in modern history.
2 thoughts on “Gruesome Research”
Kate B says:
This would be difficult research to conduct given we are in the throws of a similar pandemic!
My mother was born in 1913. I wish I’d asked her about the Spanish Flu. She would only have been about 5 years old but she might remember something. Then again, I could have asked her mother as she was certainly an adult during it.
I wish I’d been savvy enough to ask my great grandmother about her experience as a nurse during the 1910s. But at that point, I’d never even heard of the “Spanish Flu Epidemic.”
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