By Jennifer Steinhardt, NMAS Archivist
Imagine reporting for duty as a newly trained Navy nurse in 1918. You’re ready to care for sailors wounded in battle. Instead, you find your hospital overwhelmed with young men who are turning blue from lack of breath. Their brows are heavy with sweat despite being under blankets. They moan with pain from aching limbs. It’s the flu, but one no one has ever seen. This is just the beginning; it’s a pandemic. This H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin, known as the Spanish Influenza.
Why did the press label the pandemic as the “Spanish flu?” As a neutral country during World War I, Spain’s reports on mortality were not censored, unlike those of the belligerents. Spain reported a high number of cases compared to other countries due to the lack of censorship. A century later, experts are still not sure from where the virus originated. This pandemic occurred in three waves, the first of which was identified in American military personnel during the spring of 1918. The last wave occurred in the spring of 1919.
Unlike other pandemics or general influenza strains, this disease was most potent in people between the ages of twenty and forty years old, meaning the majority of the United States Navy was at the greatest risk. While the official death toll is unknown, researchers estimate casualties to be about fifty million individuals worldwide. More people died of the 1918 Influenza than from combat during World War I. For many sailors who survived the disease, they owed their lives to the care provided by Navy Nurses.
Established in 1908, the Navy Nurse Corps required female nurses to be unmarried, between the ages of twenty-two and forty-four years old, and possess a two-year minimum education at a hospital training school. Trained nurses went onto serve at naval hospitals and aboard hospital and ambulance ships. Numbers for the Navy Nurse Corps rose from 106 nurses prior to World War I, to over 1,550 at the war’s conclusion. Many nurses spent the war fighting the Influenza instead of the Central Powers, some nurses even cut short their active duty training so they could immediately help battle the disease. One such nurse was Miss Garnett O. Peck of Circleville, Ohio. She reported for duty at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital on September 24, 1918. Unfortunately, she was on the sick list just three days later. Her “lower vitality caused by overwork” caring for all the sick sailors was considered a contributing factor. Peck’s Influenza developed into pneumonia before she succumbed to pneumococcus-meningitis in October 1918.
The second wave of Influenza in the fall of 1918 was the deadliest of the three waves. The general pattern of symptoms included sudden chills, severe headaches, body pains, sore throat, and a flushed face indicating a fever between 101-104°F. According to Josie Mabel Brown, a nurse at Great Lakes Naval Hospital during the pandemic, “We didn’t have time to treat them. We didn’t take temperatures; we didn’t even have time to take blood pressure. [….] We would give them a little hot whiskey toddy; that’s about all we had time to do.” Nurses had no medicine with which they could relive high fevers or stop nosebleeds from filling the lungs and decreasing ventilation, which turned the afflicted’ s face blue. The hospital wards were so short-staffed that nurses would often work eight-hour shifts, take an hour break, and then report back for another eight hours. Despite the cancelation of events and other social gatherings, over 6,000 sailors were in the Great Lakes hospital at the height of the pandemic.
Despite the severity of the pandemic at Great Lakes, the situation in Philadelphia was worse. Most of the city’s physicians and nurses volunteered for the war, and a wave of transient war workers swelled the city’s population. The first case in the city occurred on the naval base on 18 September 1918; the next day, 600 sailors were ill.
Unlike Great Lakes, where the base cancelled large sporting and social events in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease, Philadelphia held their Fourth Liberty Loan Drive Parade on 28 September. Over 200,000 people gathered on twenty-three city blocks to watch. The numbers of the ill and the dead skyrocketed directly afterwards, and there were too few remaining nurses to care for the multitudes of the ill. In four weeks, Philadelphia had 47,094 reported cases with an estimated 12,191 dead.
During World War I, nineteen Navy Nurses died while on active duty; over half of those were from the Influenza. The United States Navy posthumously awarded three nurses who died from the pandemic as a result of their work with sailors. The recipients were Marie Louise Hidell (Naval Hospital, Philadelphia, PA), Edna Place (Philadelphia, PA), and Lillian Murphy (Hampton Roads, VA). The efforts exhibited by physicians and nurses to care for the infected and, in some cases, deceased, was not lost on those who survived. Mrs. and Mrs. William Mendelsohn’s son Roy Milton Mendelsohn died of pneumonia in September 1918. His parents urged the Great Lakes Bulletin, “Will you please convey through the columns of your newspaper for our sincere thanks to the doctors and nurses of the Naval Hospital at the Station? We know that our boy was given the utmost care and consideration and that he received better attention there than could possibly have been given were he to be home.”
In 1918, Navy Nurses and other healthcare professionals did not know fully understand the virus they battled. That did not stop them from tirelessly providing care for their patients day in, day out, the same way our healthcare professionals are answering the call to care for COVID-19 patients today.