By PATRICIA SANDERS
“’Avoid all crowds’ urges the Board of Health as a safeguard against influenza. Office workers going to and from work please take note.”
Source: The Sunday Oregonian, February 29, 1920 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)
As we wait for the covid-19 pandemic to end and a return to “normal” life, we may take comfort in knowing that the so-called Spanish flu epidemic did finally cease. It just didn’t happen in 1919, as many believe.
A fourth wave struck at the end of 1919 and persisted until mid-1920. It arrived in Portland in January, 1920. It did not leave Montavilla untouched.
I feel a personal connection with this final phase of the flu because my maternal grandparents and their two young sons lived through it. They moved here from Los Angeles ten months earlier, just after the third wave of the pandemic. Although I never heard their personal stories, I can imagine how worried they— like other Portlanders— must have been.
The 1920 outbreak began in January and spread rapidly. Its progress over four months in Portland and other Oregon cities was tracked in local newspapers, the main source for this article.
The earliest notice of flu outbreaks seemed too far away to be worrisome. The Oregonian of January 9 reported outbreaks in Spain and outbreaks on a French ship that arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina with five dead and seven dangerously ill. On January 13, this newspaper reported possibly 1 million cases in Japan, but none in America.
But within days, it had arrived. There were outbreaks at the Great Lakes Naval Training station in Illinois; Topeka, Kansas; Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; etc. Then on January 13 The Oregonian reported its presence in Mountain Home, Idaho.
January 18: still no verified cases in Portland, but some noticed patients with possible flu symptoms.
Health officials begam to prepare for the inevitable. Portland Health Officer George Parrish (1872 – 1941) promised the strictest quarantine policy ever— 14 days. It was also required that doctors and other healers must report cases.
By January 21 the flu was definitely in Portland. Four flu cases were diagnosed in Sellwood and the entire family was quarantined.
But was it really the “Spanish” flu? Some were not so sure because they noticed intestinal rather than respiratory symptoms. However, the Sellwood family had bronchial symptoms and high temperatures, consistent with influenza. And an autopsy of the first flu fatality showed pneumonia in both lungs, additional proof cited in The Oregonian of January 28, 1920.
Over the coming weeks, The Oregonian reported an exponential rise in reported cases: four on January 21, 138 on January 30, 576 on February 6, 2,050 on February 22.
The good news was that the cases were usually mild, with victims recovering in three to four days. And fatalities were low— a total of 12 reported on February 8. These too would increase until the epidemic subsided in early spring.
As the epidemic worsened in late January, every day, the Portland health bureau sent inspectors to check theaters and movie houses to assure proper ventilation and crowd management.
The City also created an isolation ward, but was only a temporary facility; just barracks set up next to the County hospital. The City Council had dragged its feet on allocating funds for a permanent, contagion hospital for three years. Mayor George Baker (1868 – 1941) declared it was “criminal” to put influenza patients in “a rotten old building” and to put smallpox patients the “filthy” Kelly Butte prison. For, now, there were two epidemics to contend with simultaneously. Oh, and there were also cases of diphtheria and scarlet fever that were taking up hospital space.
The Oregon Journal described how individuals suffered because of the lack of hospital space in its February 22, 1920 edition.
Source: Historic Oregon Newspapers
With a growing load of cases, there was also a shortage of nurses. Sound familiar? Some were leaving the profession for higher pay and better conditions. Some were doing private duty rather than hospital work. There was a call for volunteers.
Problems compounded. The Oregonian reported on January 28, the federal government could not afford to provide funds for the epidemic. Oregon, like other states, was on its own financially.
How could individuals protect themselves? There was still no reliable vaccine, but Portlanders would have remembered the advice given in 1918 and 1919: ventilate, avoid crowded places, wear a mask, etc.
Newspapers also offered advice, some of which seems surprising to us today.
Advice on how to avoid influenza.
Source: The Oregon Journal (Historic Oregon Newspapers)
And, of course, there were patent medicines promising ways to avoid contagion or to relieve symptoms. Ads for medications ran in local newspapers. They could be purchased at local drugstores. In Montavilla that would have been Dickson’s drug store on SE Stark Street or W. E. Fowler’s drug store on NE Glisan Street.
Blumauer-Frank, a pharmaceutical company in northwest Portland— where incidentally, my grandfather worked at the time— offered an array of potentially helpful products. It advertised products described as useful for preventing and treating infections.
Blumauer-Frank ad for Purola products. The mother appears to be holding a bottle of Chlorozin antiseptic mouthwash, which was advertised as helpful in avoiding germs and preventinginfections. Other Purola products are visible in the medicine cabinet.
Source: The Sunday Oregonian (Historic Oregon Newspapers)
More questionable was the whiskey cure advocated during the earlier waves of influenza. In 1920 Illinois Rep. Adolph Joachim Sabath (1866-1952) proposed suspending a provision in the new prohibition law that limited the legal amount of alcohol allowed for medicinal purposes. Sabath claimed whiskey was the only effective remedy for influenza, according to “The Oregon Journal” of January 22, 1920. Chicago City Health Commissioner John Dill Robertson (1871-1931) opposed Sabath’s proposal, denying the efficacy of spirits.
Sabath’s amendment failed and the 18th Amendment went into effect on January 16, 1920.
“The Deluge. Prohibition Constitutional Amendment Jan. 16”
Source: The Oregonian, January 15, 1920 (Historic Oregon Newspapers)
On February 3, 1920, things were looking up. On that day “The Oregonian” reported that State health officer Dr. David N. Roberg (1884 – 1940) thought the epidemic had peaked and was declining.
But by February 11, influenza cases and deaths were again on the rise. Health Officer Parish believed the upturn was caused by the indifference of the general public leading to carelessness and by doctors who were not properly diagnosing and reporting cases. To get a handle on the surge, policemen were requested to arrest persons going in or out of quarantined homes.
Dr. George H. Buck was charged with violating Oregon Board of Health quarantine regulations.
Source: “The Oregon Journal,” February 26, 1920
The February surge took at least one Montavilla woman: Mrs. Estella Jane Strange (1869 – 1920) of 204 East 82nd Avenue. The Oregon Journal of February 23 noted on her funeral at Grace Baptist Church on SE 76th Avenue. She was buried in Rose City Cemetery and was survived by her husband Benjamin Franklin Strange (1862 – 1934) and seven adult children. This was the second death in the Strange family due to influenza: daughter-in-law, wife of George T Strange died of “pneumonia influenza” in January 1919.
The rise in cases fortunately proved short lived. By Feb. 23, cases were again declining, not only in Portland but throughout the state.
The flu epidemic continued to wane and on April 1, The Oregonian declared it at an end.
Fortunately the number of deaths from influenza was lower than in 1918 or 1919. The U. S. Bureau of Census in its report on mortality statistics for 1920 showed the death rate per 100,000 in Portland as 37.6 compared to 143.3 the year before. Thankfully, despite all the logistical problems, Portland had one of the lowest death rates in 1920.
No wonder public health officer Dr. Parish, who served in hisposition during the entire flu pandemic, was described in The Oregonian of August 17, 1941 shortly after his death as largely responsible for the ending of the “Spanish” flu in Portland.
So I can credit Dr. Parish, at least in part, with the survival of my grandparents and their two children during the scourge of the flu epidemic in 1920. Thanks, Dr. Parish.
To read more about the 1918-1919 pandemic see our previous story: “Montavilla and the flu pandemic of 1918 – 1919”.
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Comment on the article at the link in the heading. Or you can reach out to Pat Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read all of the “Montavilla Memories” articles by Pat Sanders here.