Times Past

When the Spanish flu outbreak started in Kansas, it didn’t take long to hit California

Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in this 1918 file photo. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed at least 20 million people worldwide.
Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in this 1918 file photo. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed at least 20 million people worldwide.

On Oct. 18, 1918, The Morning Tribune reported that the city of San Jose was in quarantine. The medical profession was ill prepared to cope with the Spanish Influenza.

Over time, doctors continue to be flummoxed by some diseases. Dr. Richard Treadwell reported a conversation that he overheard between Dr. Paul Jackson and the mother of a pediatric patient through the thin examining room walls of San Luis Sanitarium at 1160 Marsh sometime during the 1930s:

“Well, Mrs. Smith, I don’t know what your Jimmy is suffering from, but you will be glad to know that he doesn’t have Chinese Erysipelas, Chilblains, Scabies or Seborrhea.”

Mrs. Smith replied, “Oh, Dr. Jackson, I don’t know how you do it! Here is your three dollars.”

Dr. Fred R. Mugler, Jr. was quoted by Lynne Landwehr in a history of medical care in our county done for the Medical Society and County Health Foundation in 2004:

“My father (Dr. Fred R. Mugler, Sr.) was a general practitioner, so he treated patients with a wide spectrum of medical problems. In his medical bag, he kept a variety of drugs, including four colors of ‘sugar pills’ which he used as placebos. In his practice, no effort was too great to achieve the result he wanted, but he didn’t like patients asking questions about what he was giving them. ‘I’m the doctor, and this is what you need, so just take it,’ he would reply to an inquiry.”

My own conversations with Dr. Treadwell and the younger Dr. Mugler came to mind as I read John M. Barry’s “Journal of the Plague Year: 1918 Outbreak” in the November issue of Smithsonian.

The article suggests that the global pandemic, killing 50 to 100 million people, including 670,000 Americans in a little over a year’s time, may have begun in Haskell in Western Kansas.

When Congress declared war against Germany on April 7, 1917, Camp Funston was a U.S. Army training camp on the Fort Riley reservation in Central Kansas. Hastily built, with drafty, poorly heated barracks, Funston trained more than 50,000 men during World War I.

In Haskell, many farmers in a highly marginal economy still lived in sod houses. The economy had been based on cattle, but with wartime subsidies for hog backs, pig farming became popular. Haskell was also on “a major flyway for 17 bird species including sand hill cranes and mallards.”

The confluence of bird, swine and human viruses is understood today, but wasn’t in 1918. Loring Miner, a Haskell physician, treated a number of patients, many of whom quickly died of this previously unknown viral infection. He alerted the U.S. Public Health Service, but Haskell men who had been exposed to the virus were sent to Camp Funston. The first outbreak occurred at the camp on March 4, 1918.

Within two weeks, 1,100 men overwhelmed the camp’s medical facilities.

Shortly after American troops arrived in Europe, the influenza appeared there. The viral infection became known as the Spanish Plague when King Alfonso XIII became gravely ill. Both the Western Allies and the opposing Central Powers had strict wartime censorship, minimizing early reports of the plague’s spread in the United Kingdom, France, U.S., Germany and Austria. In neutral Spain, papers were free to report the pandemic’s effects.

My grandfather, a German trained physician practicing in Ohio, said that placebos such as those that Dr. Mugler, Sr. used, Chinese herbalist medicines or bed rest seemed as effective as anything he had to fight the influenza.

I’ll soon be writing about how our SLO doctors addressed a series of other catastrophes between 1900 and 1930.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.

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