Sunday, June 21, 2009

Brookline in the Flu Pandemic of 1918-19 (Part 2 of 2)

From the front page of the Brookline Townsman, October 5, 1918

When the influenza pandemic struck Brookline in the fall of 1918 it affected all aspects of life in town as officials and residents alike struggled to control its spread, to provide care for the ranks of the sick, and to maintain daily life with so many unable to fulfill their usual roles.

Last week, Part 1 of this two-part report looked at Camp Brooks, the open air hospital on Corey Hill where merchant seamen from Commonwealth Pier in Boston were treated. This second part looks at the impact of the pandemic on the town of Brookline in general.

Influenza in the Town of Brookline

Camp Brooks, the tent hospital established by the Massachusetts State Guard to treat some of the worst cases among the merchant seamen, did not serve Brookline townspeople. The camp was isolated from the town. Guardsmen patrolled all approaches, and no visitors were allowed.

Influenza nonetheless spread among the population of Brookline, as it did in communities throughout the state. The first local person to die from the disease, police officer George T. Driscoll, succumbed on September 10th, the day after the camp opened. He had been sick for two weeks, though his illness had not been reported as influenza at first.

The initial outbreak was met with caution but with confidence that it could be kept under control. "To one who is forewarned and prepared, there is no real cause for alarm," said the Brookline Chronicle on September 14th

For the individual, his or her course of action is simple [advised the paper]. Until it is evident that the epidemic has been checked or has run its course, it would be well to avoid crowds, to keep outdoors as much as possible, sleep with windows open, eat sanely and in general lay in just as large a stock of health as possible.

A week later, as it became clear how easily the disease could spread from person to person, debate over how to respond intensified and the paper's tone, while still optimistic, changed.

Whether the schools are kept open or are closed, whether or not the doors of moving picture houses and other places of assembly are shut, there will still be open other avenues of infection. We are in a state of siege and might as well accept it.

On September 24, as the number of deaths continued to rise, the schools were ordered closed, as were the town swimming pool and gymnasium. Shortly after, public gatherings of many kinds -- at churches, meeting halls, billiard parlors, bowling alleys and other places -- were banned. Public funerals could only be held with a permit from the town. A flier outlining how to avoid the disease was circulated to local households.

Health care facilities and medical personnel in town were soon overwhelmed. An emergency call for more doctors and nurses -- "to attend the many patients now suffering for want of the simplest care" -- was issued. There was concern, too, that with whole families afflicted people could not take care of their own. "When hundreds of families are affected at the same time, and this not in a single town but on all towns, we suddenly outgrow our social clothes, and then we suffer from exposure," reported the Chronicle.

The Brookline Friendly Society, a social service agency and the forerunner of today's Brookline Community Foundation, sprung into action. Volunteers cooked broth in a kitchen set up in the Society's headquarters at the corner of Walnut and High Streets. Other volunteers collected "custards, jellies, fresh eggs, and other dainties" made by people in their own homes. These, along with broth and milk, were distributed to needy families every afternoon. Forty-nine automobiles were made available to the Society by local residents to help with the distribution.

Only the sick people themselves can tell what a help this was [reported the Friendly Society in its 1918-19 Report], but the expressions of appreciation were many. Extra food was sent to families where the breadwinner was ill, and extra clothing, particularly underwear, was bought when it was necessary.

In early October, town officials began to quarantine homes where cases of influenza had been found. On October 12th, the Brookline Townsman reported that:

Agent Ward [of the Health Department] assisted by other municipal officials has quarantined several hundred homes in Brookline, placing a red card on the front and rear of every house containing persons suffering from the disease. In addition a white card has been placed on the door of each sickroom which prevents all but doctors and attendants entering. In order to enforce the quarantine authorities have power to station policemen outside the house or seize the buildings but so far such action has not been necessary here.

The number of people who were sick had an effect on all kinds of activities. (There were more than 2,600 cases reported between September 1918 and the end of the year, out of a population of 37,000, although the actual number was probably considerably higher). The police and fire departments, reported the Townsman, were crippled, and dozens of Town Hall and post office employees, as well as those of private businesses, were unable to report to work. The Chronicle urged residents to be patient:

If telephone service is poorer, if the street cars run less often, if only one clerk is behind the counter when there should be two or three, if any of the ordinary daily services that we look for as a matter of course are less well performed than usual, remember the numbers on the sick list and have patience with those remaining who are doing double duty.

Advertisements in the Brookline papers showed how local businesses tried to cope with the crisis, to reassure customers, and, perhaps, in some cases, to take advantage of the situation.

Advertisements, The Brookline Chronicle, September & October 1918

By mid-October the worst of the epidemic seemed to have passed in Brookline. The ban on public gatherings was lifted on the 19th. The schools re-opened on the 23rd. (They were closed an extra week in January, part of an extended Christmas break, as a precaution.)

There continued to be cases, and a few deaths, in November and December and in 1919, though it was uncertain whether later cases were part of the same deadly strain of the flu. Overall, it appears that between 125 and 150 people -- and maybe more -- died. (Precise numbers are hard to come by; some Brookline residents were hospitalized and died in other towns and were not counted in the Brookline numbers, while some who died in Brookline were not residents of the town.)

"That Brookline has suffered no worse may be due in part to the promptness with which the program of prevention was adopted," wrote the Chronicle on October 12th. "Most of these steps were taken here before they were taken in other communities, and they have proved their value."

Then, too, [continued the paper] Brookline has had the very great advantage that its 'congested' districts, its quarters of houses in which families are crowded beyond the minimum requirements of health, are comparatively slight. Although the epidemic, like the agents of Herod, spared no class or quarter, it is essentially a crowd disease, and where the congestion was the greatest its incidence was most heavy.

Such an epidemic as this tests our social institutions, shakes our confidence in their sufficiency. It tries out our organizations for the protection of public health, raises questions as to whether the work of doctor and nurse might not be as much of a public concern as that of soldier and firemen and whether they ought not to be frankly in public rather than in quasi-private service. And it also raises, or should raise, a question or two about public living conditions and housing.

A Flu by Any Other Name....
The deadly flu virus of 1918-19 was widely but inaccurately known as "the Spanish Influenza" and is still frequently referred to by that name today.

According to the book “Hunting the 1918 Flu” by Kirsty Duncan, the misnomer was the result of more reports of the flu coming out of Spain than other countries because Spain was neutral in the World War and did not have the press censorship that other European countries had. But the flu did not originate in Spain nor was it more prevalent there than elsewhere.

(There was also a widespread but untrue belief at the time that the virus had been spread by agents of Germany in the waning days of the First World War.)

Accounts from the period also frequently used the now archaic term "the grippe" or, less frequently, "the grip" in their reporting on the influenza pandemic.


  1. The articles are all highly interesting, and so nicely put together. Wonderful! An important work for health care professionals to study and benefit from.. a great learning opportunity.

  2. Thank you for these two wonderfully written accounts of the grippe in Brookline...