(Host) With flu once again in the headlines, commentator Tom Blinkhorn has been thinking about the impact of an earlier scourge on Vermont and New Hampshire.
(Blinkhorn) Some have called it America’s forgotten pandemic. Yet, the flu outbreak of 1918, while the First World War raged, was a brutal killer, with devastating global impact, including in Vermont and New England.
The plague took off in September of that year and it came in waves. When it was over more than half a million Americans had died. Estimates of the worldwide death toll now range from 50 million to 100 million.
Some Eskimo villages were decimated. Twenty percent of Western Samoans perished. Vermont was one of the hardest hit New England states.
During the final week of September, 1918 there were over 6,000 flu cases in the state. By the first week of October it was spreading rapidly. The largest outbreaks were at Middlebury, St. Johnsbury, Lyndonville, St. Albans, Barre, Randolph and Montpelier.
Frank Eastman worked for a small power company in Montpelier and Barre. On September 27th he reported that nine of his crew were sick; the next day 14 were out with the flu. Two weeks later he wrote in his journal about the first deaths: "Carpenter Wiley died this morning and the switchboard operator this afternoon."
State health officials were overwhelmed and unable to provide any reliable record of influenza-related deaths. State public health departments gave out gauze masks for people to wear in public; even baseball teams wore them.
At Dartmouth college, the memorial gym was converted to a hospital and College hall into a convalescent facility. On September 21, the first Dartmouth student, George Conant, died from the flu. Five days later, Political Science Professor Eldon Evans succumbed at age 30. On October 1 all academic work ceased. Hanover’s schools, churches, even the Nugget theatre, closed. Mary Hitchcock hospital got so crowded that beds had to be placed in corridors and sunrooms.
Apparently, the 1918 flu began as an ordinary flu but then changed and became highly contagious. It spread explosively to all parts of the globe, preying on the young and healthy. The epidemic came before scientists had any idea of how to isolate an influenza virus and unlock its secrets. No one had ever seen a virus – electron microscopes had not been invented.
The 1918 pandemic dissipated just as mysteriously as it had arrived. A children’s rhyme of the day summed up the sinister mystery of it all:
"I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza,
I opened the window,