Today’s Flu – And the Spanish Flu of 1918

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Boston Red Cross volunteers assemble masks at Camp Devens, MA. Credit: National Archives

Editor’s note: This is an encore publication of a piece written by Richard Douse, a long-time ANC writer, reader and supporter. He died on Feb. 28, 2019. He was 79. 

The current flu epidemic is bad, but I don’t think people realize just how serious it can be if it decides to mutate into something even worse.

I am at a loss for words when people mention in conversation that they do not get flu shots for themselves, or their children, because they think the shots do not work, or will actually cause the flu.

In the interest of enlightening some of these folk I am sharing something my dad kept secret for his entire adult life.

Interestingly, most Americans who lived through this period of time would not talk of it either.

The following is a just a portion of a hand-written memoir my father left in an envelope to be read after his death. No family members were ever aware of the time he spent working in Boston Hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. He was 12 years old.

Since so many of my fellow citizens, as well as members of my own family, refuse to take “the flu” seriously and get the readily available flu shot, I think it’s time for me to share my father’s story:

Carl Frederick Douse, Arthur H. Douse, Lillian (Moore) Douse, and Arthur Theo Douse

Carl Douse, second from the left, playing sax in a jazz band he and his friends put together and played at various venues in the ’20s.

Carl Douse – back row, third from the left – when he was briefly in the Merchant Marine, and Carl when he had a part time air mail route between Spokane and Seattle, Washington and barnstormed for extra cash on weekends.

Early Memories of Carl F. Douse: 1906 – 1986

“1918 came and with it, the Spanish Influenza. I got the flu. Mom had to work, and as I was deathly sick, I went to the Boston City Hospital. In a short time I recovered, but the custody suit came up, and when the judge learned where I was, and the effort to kidnap me and the fact that mother couldn’t really take care of me and work too, he, the judge, ordered me to stay in the hospital as a ward of the court.

I was in the hospital nearly six months. All through the epidemic I had a small room, and, having recovered from the flu, I was immune, so I was put to work. My job was to push the gurneys to the basement where trucks would take the bodies to the island to be cremated or to designated mortuaries.

I would also have to check the bodies for identification. Name and number would be written on the stomach or thigh in indelible ink. Flu death was particularly hard. Eyes staring, facial muscles in grotesque position and fecal matter, etc., over them.

Every available space had a bed. Patients were everywhere, and nurses were very scarce. The wards were huge rooms, holding 200 to 300 people.

Photo source: New England Historical Society.

The heat was stifling. Air conditioning and refrigerators were not invented then. Ice was in short supply. Boston is unbearable in the summer. In the early morning the hallways were lined with those that died in the night. Nurses did not have time to close their eyes or anything else. They shoved them in the hall for me, and moved in a live one.

The moaning and groaning and the smell of ether was almost unbearable. I pushed the gurneys to the huge cargo elevator that was propelled by pulling ropes and got them to the basement where the trucks could take them to the island for cremation or to designated mortuaries.

I had troubles. A wheel would lock or I’d bump into a post and have an arm or leg out, or a whole naked body on the floor. A few peak days I carried over 100. In the big New York hospital they had over 300 a day. I figured I carried over 5,000 bodies to the basement.

The dead included old, young, men, women, babies, young men and pretty girls. As many people died of the flu as were killed in World War I. The flu disappeared as quickly as it had come, and there is still controversy over its origin.”

Richard Douse was a Renaissance man, a liberal thinker, a builder, writer, photographer, champion of the underdog and a fierce and loyal lover of family, friends, life and the environment. He was deeply appreciated and sorely missed.

ANC is proud to preserve his legacy by publishing some of his previous columns. Click here to read his obituary. Click here to read some of his other work published on ANC. 

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3 Responses

  1. Avatar AgentProvocatuer says:

    Why is there not a portable hand washing station in front of Good News Rescue Mission ? What precautions are they taking with local homeless population here ?

  2. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    Coronavirus tips: Wash your hands regularly, as many times per day as possible. Don’t touch your face or other humans. If you’re sick, don’t go to work. For more information, contact the CDC’s website.

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    The 1918 epidemic was an H1N1 variant (swine flu) that also became a pandemic in 2009-2010. It killed roughly 12,000 in the U.S. in the latter outbreak, and almost 400,000 worldwide.

    The secondary attack rate of CORVID-19 is high—R0 4.08—which means that a confirmed case transmits the disease to at least four other people. It’s out of the can, and it’s going to spread—all the precautions we’re being asked to exercise are delay tactics. But delay is good—it reduces the odds for scenarios like the one described in the article where there are 300+ beds per sickie ward.

    I spoke to a tennis buddy last night who’s an ER doc at UC Davis Med Center. She said they’ve been told it’s mostly mild or asymptomatic in kids—a blessing, but that also means that kids are an ideal sneaky vector for spreading it. (My wife is a school principal, so we catch everything that isn’t in the annual flu vaccine.) I played doubles last night with another tennis buddy who had just returned from a trip to Vietnam, where the government claims to have 100% contained their nascent outbreak. I guess we’ll see.

    Side note: I remember reading Richard Douse’s obituary here on ANC and commenting something like, “I need to get my act together.”