The dark days of Spanish influenza

WILLMAR -- The first ominous signs were innocent enough. They appeared in a weekly dispatch in the Willmar Tribune from Camp Dodge, Iowa, in the spring of 1918.

    WILLMAR -- The first ominous signs were innocent enough. They appeared in a weekly dispatch in the Willmar Tribune from Camp Dodge, Iowa, in the spring of 1918.

    New military recruits from Kandiyohi County were training at Camp Dodge before being sent overseas to fight in the trenches during World War I. The unnamed author reported that many soldiers were falling sick with pneumonia, and 20 had died during the previous week.

    By the end of April, 100 deaths had occurred.

    The epidemic grew. A dispatch published in the newspaper on Oct. 2, 1918, said draft calls were being canceled. "During one day, 170 deaths occurred resulting chiefly from pneumonia following influenza. In the same time, 6,139 new cases were reported," the letter reported.

    The news accounts give modern-day readers a chilling glimpse of how one of the world's worst pandemics hit home. By the time Spanish influenza eased its grip, 20 million to 50 million people worldwide had died. More than a quarter of the U.S. population -- and one in every five persons globally -- fell sick. The viral disease claimed more lives than World War I did.


    Once they were infected, people often died rapidly. "It frightens you," said Dr. Willard Peterson, a longtime Willmar physician who used to serve on the local infectious disease committee.

    When Peterson graduated from medical school in 1942, the first antibiotics were coming into use.

    Even with the new-fangled drugs to treat sick patients, influenza often hit hard. "In practice we saw influenza oftentimes. I saw people who were sick enough that they had malaise four, five and six weeks afterwards," Peterson said. He recalled one winter during which 300 children had to be waived by a nurse before they could return to school. "You can see how widespread (influenza) was at the time," he said.

    Spanish influenza acquired its name after sweeping through Spain in the early spring of 1918 and causing widespread deaths. The virus actually made its first appearance at an army base in Kansas, however. Fueled by troop movement in the final months of World War I, it soon spread worldwide.

    The disease struck home in Willmar in the fall of 1918.

    "Soldier Boys Have Died at Camp," proclaimed a headline in the Oct. 9, 1918, Willmar Tribune. The seven young soldiers from Kandiyohi County had left home barely a month earlier.

    Nor were civilians spared. Dr. J.M. Rains, the Willmar health officer, warned in the newspaper about the dangers of spreading germs in crowded places. He described the symptoms of Spanish flu: sudden onset of illness, muscle and joint pain, high fever.

    Cover your coughs and sneezes, he urged readers. "If you don't, you will spread the disease."


    Churches, theaters and schools in Willmar were closed. Public meetings were banned until further notice. Masks were a common sight.

    The newspaper reported that in Granite Falls, more than 200 people were sick. A dentist and one of the town's physicians died. City Hall was turned into a makeshift hospital to handle the overwhelming volume of patients.

    In some cases, entire families were sick.

    Worldwide, Spanish flu struck down young people in especially high numbers. Close to home, the Tribune reported, its victims included two young businessmen from Benson. One was the owner of a furniture company; the other managed the local theater -- "robust men in the prime of life," the article recounted.

    It wasn't until early November that the outbreak showed signs of abating and schools and churches were allowed to reopen. "The past five weeks have been dark ones," a reporter wrote.

    Could history repeat itself? Peterson says there are lessons to be learned from the Spanish influenza pandemic.

    "People need to be reminded," he said. "Transportation brings everything home. We're just one big community."

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