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Style Magazine

The Invisible Enemy

Jan 07, 2013 05:00AM ● By Style

Photo by Harris & Ewing via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1918, national newspapers were filled with stories from the battle lines in Europe.

When the Great War (WWI) ended on November 11, 1918, an estimated 16 million lives had been lost. Sadly, as the world celebrated the long-awaited armistice, an invisible and more devastating enemy advanced rapidly across Europe and around the globe. Within one year, the most destructive epidemic in recorded world history, known as the Spanish influenza or la grippe, claimed more lives than all four years of the bubonic plague from 1347-1351.

The year 1918 marked an unforgettable time of suffering and death, and also of peace. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted it as “a year momentous in the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man’s destruction of man; unfortunately a year which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. For four-and-a-half years medical science devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all – infectious disease.”

The plague emerged in two phases. The first, known as the three-day fever, appeared without warning in the spring of 1918. Few deaths were reported and victims recovered in a few days. The war brought the virus back into the U.S. for a second and more severe outbreak. In September, it arrived in Boston – a port busy with war shipments of machinery and supplies – and spread faster than wildfire. On September 28, the Mountain Democrat reported the death of young George Harvey. The Shingle Springs resident had just been ordered to Europe as a member of government’s telegraph corps and died in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Soon, the infectious disease hit home, striking the rural communities of El Dorado County. On November 11, Mike French was brought down to Placerville from Caldor (near Grizzly Flat) but died within the hour. A number of families in Placerville were infected with the virus; 16 cases were reported in the sanatorium there. Parents lost children, spouses their wives and husbands, and children became orphans.   

On Armistice Day, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors held a special meeting and ordered all schools in the county closed until further notice. County Health Officer Dr. S.H. Rantz reported 36 cases in the county outside of Placerville. “The situation is assuming a serious aspect,” reported the Placerville Republican on November 12, “and every precaution must be taken to combat it.”

The Board of Supervisors ordered every El Dorado County resident to don a mask. Meanwhile, the community services branch of the Red Cross appealed in vain for men and women to care for infected families. The chairperson of human services declared the situation critical and urged nurses to volunteer “if the lives of influenza victims are to be saved.” She telephoned 15 women one morning in an effort to care for a sick girl, but found no one to help.

Doctors tried to allay the public’s fear of contracting the disease, assuring them there was no danger in taking care of influenza patients if a mask was worn and proper precautions were taken. They also declared it impossible for anyone to carry the germ on their clothing.

Into 1919, a few deaths from the influenza still occurred locally, but by summer, the numbers had sharply declined. Fortunately, deaths from influenza viruses have been increasingly fewer in number since the 1918-1919 pandemic, thanks, in part, to medical science. Still, the public plays a major role in preventing the spread of influenza and other viruses.