Part 5: Explosion Summary
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1102
Three hundred sailors travelled from Boston to Philadelphia on September 7, 1918, arriving at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. From that point on, Philadelphia would often be “a model for what would happen elsewhere.”
Like many American cities, Philadelphia was “being flooded by people,” with shipyards and munitions factories employing thousands of workers. Housing was scarce, social services were poor or lacking, and lower class workers endured “squalid” conditions.
The government of Philadelphia was “incapable of responding to a crisis.” The government was run by Senator Edwin Vare, and Vare’s “machine” was deeply corrupt.
Dr. Wilmer Krusen was “a political appointee” who served as Director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and Charities at the time. He was “a decent man,” but he lacked the understanding and the personality to deal with public health problems.
Days after the sailors from Boston arrived in the Navy Yard, cases of influenza began to multiply. R. W. Plummer, the chief health officer for the Philadelphia naval district, tried to contain the disease, but it had already spread. He also called Paul Lewis, the head of the Henry Phipps Institute, and Lewis arrived at the Navy Yard. As the disease overwhelmed the Navy Yard, and then the civilian hospital, Lewis and his assistants worked in the laboratory, searching for the pathogen causing the disease.
Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, situated north of Chicago, was also “erupting” with the virus. Testimonies of patients and nurses recount the horrific conditions in the hospital and morgue.
Despite these developments, in Philadelphia Dr. Krusen “had done absolutely nothing.” He made no preparations and continued to give the public false assurances. On September 18, Krusen met with Plummer and Lewis, but the only result of the meeting was the decision to “monitor developments.”
To understand Plummer and Krusen’s lack of action—and the influenza pandemic itself—it is necessary to recognize the context. In Wilson’s wartime America, the sacrifices of total war were demanded from every citizen. It was widely deemed necessary to preserve the morale of the nation, even at the cost of the free flow of information and the freedom of speech.
The Liberty Loan parade, a huge event drawing thousands of people in order to sell war bonds, was scheduled for September 28 in Philadelphia. Despite the feact that some “urged Krusen to cancel the parade,” that cases of influenza were rising, and that the public had been given direction to “avoid crowds,” Krusen allowed the parade to proceed as planned.
Two days after the parade, in line with the incubation period of the influenza virus, Krusen acknowledged: “The epidemic is now present in the civilian population and is assuming the type found in naval stations and cantonments.”
The influenza virus “reached first and with most lethality” into military posts. Although Camp Devens “had been struck by surprise,” the other cantonments and bases had been warned by Gorgas.
Camp Grant, a camp in Illinois, was “quite typical” in its experience of the virus. In June 1918, members of the National Research Council visited the camp and left impressed by the medical staff there. The chief of service at the hospital, Joe Capps, had been experimenting with the use of gauze masks in the prevention of pneumonia. Following Welch’s recommendations, Camp Grant had a “depot brigade”—separate barracks for new recruits, to prevent new arrivals from contaminating the troops.
In August, Colonel Charles Hagadorn took command of Camp Grant. Hagadorn decided to ignore warnings against overcrowding. In September, as the nights became colder, he moved men from tents into the already overcrowded barracks.
Despite warnings from the camp’s medical staff, Hagadorn “believed that the disease could be controlled.” When the first cases in the camp appeared on September 21, the disease spread quickly. Although medical staff tried to isolate the cases, “it was already too late.” The camp became consumed. There were not enough resources, and healthy soldiers were occupied by the care of the sick.
On “the same day that the first Camp Grant soldier died” of influenza, over three thousand troops were “crammed” onto a train bound for Camp Hancock in Georgia. During the horrific journey, the virus broke out among the troops. It is estimated that ten percent of the soldiers onboard died, with more dying in Camp Hancock as a result.
At Camp Grant, Hagadorn began cooperating with medical personnel, but “nothing seemed even to slow the disease.” On October 8, after receiving the report of the latest death toll, Colonel Hagadorn asked his sergeant and all personnel to leave the building. From outside, a pistol shot could be heard; Hagadorn had taken his own life.
In Philadelphia, influenza was “exploding in the city” within two days of the Liberty Loan parade. All hospital beds were filled; people were desperate for medical care, but even that was “making little difference anyway.”
Although all public meetings became banned, and temporary medical facilities were set up, the disease shot from one or two deaths a day to hundreds of deaths each day in just a ten-day period. Despite the rising death toll, newspapers continued to “minimize the danger,” optimistically announcing that the peak of the disease had passed.
Meanwhile, Paul Lewis worked constantly on the problem. Although he loved his laboratory, “this work did not give him peace.” As a respected scientist, Lewis was troubled by how the urgency of the pandemic “forced him to abandon the scientific process.”
Across the city, homes were marked by a piece of crepe hung on the door, a common practice at the time to signify a death. Coffins became “priceless,” and bodies began “piling up” as undertakers and gravediggers were overwhelmed, sick, or afraid. The presence of corpses and the “terrifying” symptoms of the disease led to rumors of the Black Plague.
Before the virus reached such horrific levels, it had already “seeded itself along the edges of the nation.” As the seeds erupted in pandemic form, the virus “spanned the country.”
In Philadelphia, the suffering population became steeped in fear and isolation. Despite the release of medical and pharmaceutical students to help, there were not enough doctors, nurses, or police officers. Isaac Starr, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, was put in charge of “an entire floor in an emergency hospital.” Each day, almost one quarter of his patients died and were “replaced by new ones.” Philadelphia became “frozen with fear, frozen quite literally into stillness.” On his twelve-mile journey home from the hospital, Starr began counting the few cars he saw. Some nights, he didn’t see a single car.