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The Previous Pandemic

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by Margaret O’Hartigan

History may not repeat itself – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t striking similarities between events.

In the United States, what would become known as the “Spanish Flu” was first reported at Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 11, 1918. Most people experienced only mild symptoms, and by the end of summer the flu was all but gone. Yet as so often happens with viruses, it mutated into a deadlier form – and with World War I’s massive mobilization of troops living in close quarters, the timing couldn’t have been worse. 

On October 3, 1918, Private James McNeese arrived in Portland, bound for cavalry officer’s training camp in Texas. After being diagnosed with the flu at a Portland hospital, McNeese was sent to the Vancouver Barracks across the river in Washington state.

Infections exploded a few days later among members of an army training detachment housed at Benson Polytechnic in Northeast Portland. The school was quarantined and turned into a makeshift hospital. Portland’s health officer, George Parish, asserted that he was “confident that preventative measures and the application of proper precautions on the part of citizens will serve to hold the malady at a minimum.” 

By the end of October, there were over 1,000 cases of the deadly flu in Portland; Civic Auditorium had been converted into a hospital. By mid-January, Portlanders were wearing masks. The months-long delay in adopting personal protection was almost the same as would occur a century later with COVID, when the CDC didn’t recommend face masks until early April despite the disease appearing in the U.S. in January.

On December 11, 1918, the Portland City Council passed an ordinance requiring quarantine for flu patients, and were met by objections from alleged medical experts. According to The Oregonian, “Dr. Turner, representing the Oregon State Federation of Drugless Associations,” stated: “It is unconstitutional. It would make the City Health Officer an autocrat with power to send to the pesthouse any child who was heard sneezing. The germ theory of disease has never been proved.” 

Dr. George Morris of the “Health Defense League” launched a vitriolic attack on vaccination in general, claiming the work of the city health bureau tore down 1000 times as much as it built up. “The children of the poor, ignorant and submissive have vaccination thrust upon them, while the rich go free,” he said. “Of 110 carmen vaccinated at Piedmont barn four years ago, 72 were unable to work the next day.”  Morris, a resident of Northeast Portland, apparently didn’t believe in drivers’ licenses, either, as he was charged in 1946 with reckless driving and failure to have an operator’s permit after he collided with an electric bus on Sandy.

On December 14, 1918 there were 3 deaths reported by the City Health Bureau, and a total of 65 deaths for the week. The Health Bureau concluded that more than one person in every 30 had had the disease, and that about 1 in 14 of those who suffered from it had died, with a total of 10,105 cases being reported.

As with the COVID pandemic in 2020, flu cases increased in 1918 as a result of holiday spread. “The increase in the number of cases is partially due to the Christmas holiday crowds and the New Year’s celebration, said Captain John G. Abele, acting city health officer.” Two dozen new cases were reported on January 3, and 7 deaths. 

Throughout January of 1918, quarantines were strictly maintained. Signs notifying the public of quarantine were posted at every location where anyone with a positive flu test was present; criminal prosecution for breaking quarantine was established. But unlike the COVID epidemic a century later, healthy people and locations were not quarantined: “While the policy of the state board of health is against closure of churches, schools, theaters, and other places where public gatherings are held, it does earnestly request the co-operation of the general public in the matter of voluntarily avoiding unnecessary exposures,” The Oregonian reported.

Although health officials expected worse to come, by February the virus had seemingly run its course, having taken the lives of about 3,500 people statewide. But the end of the pandemic didn’t mean the flu was permanently gone. In 1920 the flu returned. The city’s first casualty of the new outbreak was Margaret Messenger of 895 1/2 Albina Avenue. She was only 19 and had been ill less than 24 hours prior to her death on January 26.