Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Influenza Epidemic of 1918 (Massachusetts)

Fort Devens Hospital, Massachusetts (Click images to enlarge)
September 1918, Fort Devens, west of Littleton, was a major staging area for U.S. Army troops preparing to ship off to Europe, we having entered into World War I in April of that year. Fort Devens was also one of the two earliest stateside sites of the “Spanish Flu” pandemic, the other being among Navy personnel stationed in Boston. At Devens, the first case was reported September 8. By September 23 the number of men ill exceeded 10,500. Deaths reached 100/day. More than half a million Americans died. Worldwide, within little over two years, the flu infected an estimated half billion people, killing between fifty and one hundred million.

Deaths were unevenly distributed by age and by region of the world. Influenza typically kills the young and the old. What was unique about this flu was that there was a high risk of death for people ages 15-35 years, the reason being that their immune systems responded too vigorously. In developed countries – those with hospitals and nursing care – deaths were on the order of two percent of the population. With poorer medical care, more like five to ten percent, and in remote reaches of the earth where people had fewer prior exposures to any strains of influenza, exceeding twenty percent.

Men, sick with flu at Fort Devens, MA. For a period
in the fall of 1918 deaths exceeded 100/day.
The fact that World War I was ongoing contributed to the speed the flu spread worldwide. Troops were constantly being moved. War-time censorship hindered knowledge of the extent of the problem. This censorship was why the popular name is the “Spanish flu,” as Spanish newspapers, in a country neutral in WWI and hence not censored, produced lots of headlines and articles about the disease. (In Spain it was referred to as the “French flu.”)

Viruses have been described as being a bit of bad news (in the form of a strand of DNA or RNA) wrapped in proteins. For this influenza virus damage was threefold: 1) the virus getting into cells, replicating and then killed those cells so as to re-enter the blood stream to find new cells, 2) the patient’s immune system reaction to the foreign proteins coating the outside of the virus, causing more damage than the actual virus, and 3) viral infection created an opportunity for bacterial pneumonia. This particular virus caused so much damage because it reached deep into the lungs rather than just the upper respiratory system, and because it triggered a massive inflammation response. In effect, people were dying of collateral damage as their immune system over-reacted while trying to neutralize the virus. At autopsy, lungs were often blueish, signifying oxygen deprivation, and filled with fluid. Those the virus-triggered reaction did not kill outright succumbed to bacterial pneumonia.

In Maynard, the first death attributed to influenza was 
Patrick D. Meagher, Curate at St. Bridget's Church.
Locally, the arrival of influenza is documented in the Town of Maynard Annual Report, which reported deaths with causes noted. Regardless of whether the contagion reached Maynard from Fort Devens or Boston, the first death identified as either influenza or “la grippe” dates to September 22, 1918, the last on July 21, 1919. In that interval there were 38 deaths identified as influenza and another 18 attributed to pneumonia. Combined, a bit under one percent of the population. Likely, ten to twenty times that number had become ill but recovered. Schools were closed for five weeks. Glenwood Cemetery has a section (7-O, old cemetery) with unmarked graves of Maynard citizens who died from cholera, smallpox and influenza epidemics. A single stone was erected in their memory by the Maynard Boy Scouts.
Deaths from influenza continued into 1919 (not shown)

The Town of Stow Annual Report listed 11 deaths from broncho or lobar pneumonia, the first occurring September 21, 1918. Population was 1,100 compared to Maynard's 7,000 so this would have also been around one percent.

Glenwood Cemetery, Maynard, MA,
monument for section with unmarked graves.
True ‘Ground Zero’ for this pandemic is disputed to this day. Influenza viruses are pan-species, moving back and forth among people, pigs and birds. Researchers propose Kansas, or a troops staging and hospital camp in France, or perhaps China (?!). To this last, military historians point out that with so many men of France and Great Britain in uniform, nearly 100,000 Chinese laborers were transported to France for purposes of behind-the-front labor. There is some evidence that a respiratory illness recorded in China was a precursor to what mutated into this extremely lethal virus.

Since the influenza pandemic of 100 years ago there have been other, smaller pandemics – the Asian flu of 1958-59 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 each killing on the order of one million people. Each spring, in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies the three or four strains of flu likely to be prevalent in the pending fall and winter, and prepares an injectable vaccine. New vaccines are needed each year because the rapid mutation rate of influenza RNA means that the immune system virus identification ability engendered by the previous year’s vaccination will not continue to be effective. The CDC has already determined which strains will be used for the 2018-19 flu season.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Babe is Back! (Babe Ruth)

Maynard mural by Jack Pabis, September 2018. Click to enlarge.
The long-empty Murphy & Snyder building at the corner of Waltham and Parker Streets is now graced with murals on both sides – an abstract-to-real portrayal of a hummingbird approaching a flower on the south side; swooping colors, mosaics of birds in flight, and Henry David Thoreau looking down out of a window to see Babe Ruth in a Rex Sox uniform on the north side. The latter is a creation of Jack Pabis, an experienced muralist working out of Maryland, who has an intriguing website statement “I can paint anything. I can paint anywhere.”

Why Ruth? Because he was here. During the off season of 1917-1918, George ‘Babe’ Ruth and his wife Helen rented a small cabin on the shore of Willis Pond, Sudbury. At that time Ruth, age 22, was well-off, but not rich, his pay for the 1917 season had been $5,000 ($98,500 in today’s dollars). He had been with the Red Sox since late 1914. In 1917 he was a pitcher, his at bats only in those games he was pitching. His win/loss record was 24-13. Only later did he switch to being an every-game player lauded for his home run hitting – the “The Sultan of Swat.”

George 'Babe' Ruth, with Red Sox
from 1914-1919; then sold to Yankees.
From north Sudbury, Maynard was the closest place with shopping. According to one account, George ‘Babe’ Ruth and his wife Helen would drive to Maynard, where Helen would shop at Woolworths and other places while George would buy cigars and play pool at the Maynard Smoke Shop. Ralph Sheridan, younger brother of the owners, recounted that he recognized Ruth the first time he walked into the store. At times, Sheridan and other young Maynard men would walk to Willis Pond. Once they got there George and Helen would invite them inside for hot cocoa and cookies. Helen would play piano and everyone would sing along.

The Babe also drank in Maynard. According to an account from Bob Merriam, heard from his grandfather, Ruth would show up at Bughouse Corner, a small bar on the south corner of Waltham and Parker, buy everyone drinks and stay till closing. (Meanwhile his wife of three years was alone back at the cabin.) Sometimes Ruth was too drunk to make his way home, and would sleep it off on a couch at someone’s house. Years later, with the Yankees, Ruth was required to sign a morals clause addendum to his contract, promising to abstain entirely from the use of intoxicating liquors, and to not stay up later than 1:00 a.m. during the training and playing season without permission of the manager. 

Henry David Thoreau looking out of a
window (detail from Maynard mural)
And for that matter, why Thoreau? Again, because he was here. Thoreau and a friend walked through Maynard before it was Maynard. The date was September 4, 1851. Their plan was a roundtrip walk of about 20 miles to Boon Pond and back. Approaching what was ‘Assabet Village,’ at the time a hamlet in growth mode because of the woolen mill that had started operating in 1846 and the railroad in 1850, Thoreau wrote in his journal of passing the gunpowder mill and the paper mill, the latter standing where the Murphy & Snyder building is now, then proceeding south on Waltham Street. He turned right on Old Marlboro Road to the pond. On the way home he walked the railroad tracks, crossed the Assabet River at the White Pond Road bridge, made a connection to Concord Street, and so back to Concord.   

Hummingbird mural, Maynard, MA August 2018
The opposite side of the Murphy & Snyder building was recently graced with a mural “Hummingbirds,” painted by Eric Giddings and Ben ‘Berj’ Braley. Together, the murals are a first effort of “Maynard As A Canvas.” This concept was brought to fruition by Erik Hansen, a Maynard artist, who had been impressed by public murals during a visit to Iceland. His proposal was acted on by the Maynard Cultural Council. An announcement in 2017 for proposals from experienced murals artists yielded 80 entries, winnowed down to six finalists, and then two winning entries. The result represents a commitment from the Town of Maynard to support public art and the recent Commonwealth of Massachusetts recognition of the Assabet Village Cultural District.

Children, waiting for a bus to take
them to the United Co-op day camp.
(Maynard Historical Society)
Alpert Murphy and John Snyder started their printing business in 1917, and for many years printed the high school yearbook. They were in several Maynard locations, the last being a move to this building on Waltham Street, in 1957. The business closed its doors in 2003. The building has been empty since then. Prior to Murphy & Snyder, it had been a branch store of the United Co-operative Society, constructed for the Society in 1936.

Not in the newspaper column: The Co-op had its beginnings as the Kaleva Co-operative Association in 1907, started by Finnish immigrants who worked at the mill. The name was changed to United Co-operative Society of Maynard in 1921. At its peak, the Co-op operated a supermarket, bakery, dairy delivery, coal and fuel oil delivery, gas station, ice delivery, restaurant, educational programs in Finnish and English and a children's summer day camp.The Co-op's existence continued into the 1970s. Two columns about Babe Ruth and Maynard posted November 2013.