When we look at life in the past versus today, we can see advantages and disadvantages in comparing the early 20th century with the early 21st century. Hurricanes are in both periods but in the early 20th century they often didn’t know where or when they would strike or how strong they would be. Regardless of how well we use that information today, the information does give us an advantage. Economic downturns are a mixed bag. In the past there were no safety nets for individuals but today we have a much more complex society that is a part of a global system of trade so the impacts can be sudden and severe, as we saw in the 2008 Great Recession. But the one area where we have a significant advantage is in managing the challenge of communicable and infectious disease. By the early 20th century our ancestors at least understood how some diseases were transmitted but control was still a ways off. Let’s visit Pensacola during 1905 and 1918 and get a first hand view of two major outbreaks and their impact on the area.
Yellow fever has been on the North American continent since the first white traders arrived along the African coast to buy trade goods and slaves and transport them across the ocean to the New World. Early American history is riddled with large and devastating outbreaks of yellow fever. One of the best known was the outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 that killed thousands of people between 1 August and 9 November 1793. This outbreak impacted our Founding Fathers since, at the time, Philadelphia was the capitol of the U.S. But in 1793 little was known or understood about the disease. The mosquito as culprit was unknown and the medical treatment was primitive to non-existent. Panic could set in when the outbreak continued to pile up dead bodies because it was truly an unseen, and terrifying, foe.
By 1905, the key to yellow fever had been found. The impetus was the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century in which 1,000 men died in battle and somewhere around 5,000 died of disease, much of which was caused by yellow fever. Major Walter Reed and the Yellow Fever Commission established by the federal government confirmed the disease was carried by the mosquito, Aedes Aegypti. A now common mosquito in North American, it carries such diseases as dengue fever, Zika fever and yellow fever. While we had determined how folks acquired the disease, time had not yet allowed good control of the mosquito when yellow fever struck again on the Gulf Coast.
New Orleans was a major port for merchandise coming in from Cuba, Mexico, South America and the rest of the Caribbean. And it was in these areas where the control of the mosquito was needed the most. Control efforts were underway but in 1905 yellow fever began appearing in New Orleans, once again terrifying the public. As in the past, cities in the surrounding area went on high alert. One case often meant many cases in a short period of time. On 20 September 1905, the Pensacola Journal had an interesting little snippet in the middle of page 4 that pointed out that if the outbreak being reported from New Orleans was accurate that it might prove beneficial in helping to isolate the germ causing the disease and thereby speed up the finding of a remedy for the disease. In the same issue was a lengthy report on the same page informing people on how the disease was transmitted and how to nurse it. The 1905 outbreak in New Orleans proved to be the last major outbreak of yellow fever in the U.S. Within a short period of time we had the information necessary to control and treat the disease.
At the end of the outbreak in 1905, Mayor Bliss’ report in the Pensacola Journal of 26 November 1905 (see below) that the city’s records indicated that a total of 63 deaths had occurred in the previous 157 days of the outbreak and that the State Board of Health’s records indicated 82 deaths from yellow fever. That would appear not to be a lot but it was approximately 2 deaths a day from a fearsome foe that people did not yet completely understand. Yellow fever had repeatedly occurred throughout the east coast and southern areas of the United States, devastating communities and causing families to try to adapt and survive. But finally, yellow fever was at least not a cause for anxiety as the temperatures rose and the rains came.
The 1918 influenza outbreak was the largest and deadliest pandemic in modern history. It is estimated that about 500 million people worldwide (about a third of the population at the time) was infected and about 5 to 10% of those infected, died. In the U.S., which is now believed to be where the initial case occurred in a young man drafted for WWI, about 25% of the population were infected and somewhere around 675,000 Americans died. Many of those that died were young, and generally healthy, adults who often died when they developed pneumonia after the flu virus had set in. It was first observed in Europe where young men off to war were housed in close quarters and still able to interact with non-military persons. It soon spread worldwide (the definition of a pandemic).
As a genealogist who loves to wander through cemeteries, I have often been struck by the number of headstones with death dates in 1918 and 1919. As a retired public health manager, my mind often looks at aggregate graves in a cemetery with the same death years and wander about epidemics. Of course, people did died from other causes in these two years but if you pay close attention, you will find a spike during that period. Like most infectious diseases, it caused anxiety and drastic measures to try and halt the spread of the disease. There was no vaccine and little useful treatment so communities turned to limiting the interactions between people. I was curious to see how Pensacola handled the pandemic.
The first entry I found was for 5 January 1918, 2nd section, page 10 where they provided an estimate of the cost of the influenza outbreak for the United States. According to the article a conservative estimate was $115,000,000 a day! The largest costs were to lost workers and loss of business activity. They go on to mention that influenza quarantines were very unpopular. In June 1918, they reported that influenza was “all along the German front”. By September 1918, the Spanish Influenza, as it was called at the time, had been reported at Fort Morgan. The article indicates that one tramp steamer arrived at Newport News (in VA) with nearly the entire crew sick and that “even New Orleans” had not escaped. Just like with earlier yellow fever outbreaks, once an infectious disease was in nearby communities, it was only a matter of time.
By 30 September 1918, The Pensacola Journal was reporting “Uncle Sam’s Advice to Flu Victims” and reported that school opening was being delayed because of the outbreak. (As an aside, in the same edition and page it was announced that the 30th would be the last day for liquor sales in Pensacola. I wonder how much last minute buying contributed to the spread!) By this point influenza had developed in at least three Army camps in the U.S. and several cities were reporting major outbreaks. This prompted the federal government to start trying to get the rapid transmission under control, requiring states to report promptly by telegraph and to start educational campaigns. It was too late.
By 4 October 1918, The Pensacola Journal had a tiny piece at the bottom of the front page stating that the death toll so far was 930 in the U.S. with more than 12,000 cases reported. On page 5 of the same edition, we begin to see the names of folks who were ill and those who had died in Pensacola, and we see the second mention of an event being postponed due to the outbreak, a dance for the benefit of the French War Orphans. The next day, 5 October 1918 on the front page, we are told that the “Liberty Loan” campaign was at a standstill. “Every committee working in the interest of the loan is short of men, owing to the illness of workers themselves, their families or employees, and the situation is such as to make the soliciting of subscriptions practically useless.” In the adjacent column it is reported that ALL churches would be closed on the 6th of October due to the epidemic. Further down the page we see that the Headquarters of the Pensacola Emergency Relief Committee was to open to coordinate funds and volunteers. In the span of a month, reporting on the outbreak had gone from small sections of one column to nearly half the front page.
For the month of October, every issue had a page of names of those home sick, returning home after being sick elsewhere and those that had died. Schools remained closed through October and most large gatherings of people were discouraged or not allowed. But we also see that the Liberty Loan folks were getting back to some normalcy in their drives and the amount of space in the newspaper was decreasing. The outbreak would continue but it was running its course. I would recommend taking the time to visit these old newspapers at Chronicling America, if for no other reason than to read the ads. I noticed a low end Kodak camera was selling for $2.75 in 1918 and terms were available.
Outbreak and epidemics are an important part of the social history our ancestors experienced and understanding how these diseases were seen and responded to can be important to understanding our ancestors’ lives. These folks had many challenges that we no longer face, and we have some they couldn’t have imagined, but infectious diseases are something that will likely be around as long as there are hosts to inhabit. Bacteria and viruses are extraordinarily adaptable, unlike some of their hosts, and can quickly adjust to a new environment and continue to thrive. Our ancestors would have loved to have the resources we have to combat disease but we do not always use these gifts wisely. That’s how we’ve come to create superbugs from our often indiscriminate use of antibiotics (in raising animals and in the doctor’s office). Think about that the next time your doctor tells you that you have the flu, without doing a test to actually determine that, and then gives you a prescription for antibiotics. Viruses are not affected by antibiotics and influenza is caused by a virus.
Until next time.
- The 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic
- The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby
- Yellow Fever 1905, Sunday, 26 November 1905, “Mayor Bliss on the Health of Pensacola”.
- Chronicling America: The Library of Congress
- The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry