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The Influenza Pandemic of 1918
Written by Larry Roeder, Editor
2020-04-01

In our Four-County-Corner of the Commonwealth

 

            Fear and uncertainty along with rumors and untruths abound in today's world as the COVID-19 virus brings many of our daily routines and actions to a halt. 

            We now live in a time of social distancing, increased cleanliness practices,

improving our respiratory hygiene, self-quarantine and other precautions to protect our health and the health of others.

            We also live in a time of modern medical practices, institutions and highly

  • Some of the "home remedies" that were published during the influenza epidemic of 1918.  Perhaps your grandparents or great-grandparents used one or more of them.  Of course, they are not recommended in 2020.

    • Take warm water, previously boiled, mix with two parts of glycerin, put in atomizer and spray nose and throat freely during the day and also at night.
    • Take a handful of lukewarm, boiled milk into your nose and retain awhile until milk works into tissue.
    • Drink hot milk with sweet butter, a teaspoon full of butter to a cup of milk, during the day and especially before going to retire.
    • Don't drink any water except that which is boiled and cooled.
    • Drink plenty of weak tea with plenty of sugar or honey preferred.
    • Take purgative pills to clean the stomach of the mucous which is swallowed from mouth.
    • Handkerchiefs used for the nose ought to be put, after using, right into a pail and covered with boiling water.
    • Wash the hands often with antiseptic soap.
    • Don't stay in damp rooms.
    • Furniture in the home should be cleaned with a cloth moistened with coal oil.
    • Put a couple of drops of vinegar on a hot stove and let the vapor go through the whole house.
    • Put a drop of peppermint oil on a cube of sugar and take three or four times a day.
    • If sleepless and have pressure on chest, call doctor at once.
    • Let fresh air go through the rooms but see that the person is well covered during the night.
    • Inhale plenty of odor of pine oil.
    • Don't neglect walks in fresh air.
    • Carry a menthol inhaler and use it often.

skilled caregivers.  The horrible situation caused by COVID-19 will be defeated.  It's only a matter of time.

            There was a time when people were forced to endure much more with much less. 

It was a little over 100 years ago, in January of 1918, that the influenza pandemic began ravaging the world. 

            About 500 million people, or one-third of the world's population at the time, became infected with the H1N1 virus.  The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

            In 1918, our own communities faced the reality of life during the influenza pandemic, often referred to as the "Spanish Flu."  However that moniker may not be true because when it was discovered, the virus was spreading in a world at war.  It was difficult, then and now, to piece together the exact origins of it.

            But, it was shortly after soldiers began coming home from World War I that reports of increases in flu cases grew.

            The pandemic didn't hit the news in our area until October of 1918 with the report that all but three families in the village of Perkiomenville were afflicted with the

Spared the worst of the pandemic, many East Greenville

residents attributed their good fortune to the quality of

water distributed from their water plant along the Perk-

iomen Creek in Upper Hanover Township. 

virus – 60 reported cases in the small community.  There were five cases reported in Pennsburg; 12 in Green Lane; and one death reported in the Green Lane.  In most cases, multiple members of the household were affected.

            There were also cases of influenza reported in East Greenville, Red Hill, Sumneytown, Palm and Old Zionsville but physicians had not pronounced them as cases of the "Spanish Flu."

            Schools in Collegeville, Perkasie, North Wales and Lansdale were closed.

            A week after the initial report, seven more deaths were reported in our local communities as the infected count rose to more than 200.  Factories were forced to close due to the lack of workers as well as to try and help fight the spread of the influenza virus.

            Area boards of health received word from state officials to "take definite action to prevent a possible spread."  As a result, all public meetings and gatherings, schools, churches, saloons and movie theaters were ordered closed until further notice.  

            A week later, there was no relief in sight.  Deaths in our local communities continued and undertakers reported a shortage of caskets.  Doctors were seeing hundreds of patients each day.

            In a Town and Country report, Dr. O. W. Berkey of Bally was reported to have recently suffered a compound fracture of his right arm while "cranking his automobile" but was compelled to forget his own injury and see some 150 patients each day during the epidemic.  His practice ranged from Niantic through Bally and all the way up into Huffs Church. 

            Yes, doctors made house calls back then.  After all, the nearest hospital was

Forced to close in October, East Greenville's Palace

Theater and other public venues in the boroughs,

reopened in November of 1918 after being closed

for a month due to the flu pandemic.

more than 20 miles away and very few roads were paved with more than a layer of gravel.  It was quite a ride in a Model T Ford or a horse-drawn buggy.

            By the end of October, the news of the influenza spread was not as dire.  The headline on the Town and Country newspaper proclaimed that "Influenza is on the wane in this section."  Most patients were reported in the convalescent stage and out of danger.

            Health officials in Red Hill proclaimed the situation under control and workers began returning to their workplaces.

            East Greenville was cited as especially fortunate during the epidemic with only 25 cases reported and no deaths.

            Many residents attributed the good fortune to the quality of water distributed from their water plant along the Perkiomen Creek in Upper Hanover Township.  During the three-week period of the epidemic, the water was tested in Norristown as 100 percent pure every week.

            With the exception of Upper Hanover Township, businesses, churches, schools, and movie theaters were back open as the epidemic turned its head to the more rural areas around the towns and villages in early November.  The Perkiomen School library reopened to the public and announced that those who drew books before the ban should return them this week.

            As headlines proclaimed the end of World War I on November 15, they also proclaimed a new outbreak of influenza in the area.  Trumbauersville reported 55 cases and one death, and Finland reported seven new cases.  An increase in cases was also reported in Powder Valley and Shimerville causing the closure of the public school there.

            Thanksgiving week, three more deaths were reported in Trumbauersville as the virus continued to spread through Kumry, Spinnerstown and Milford Square.  The number of cases also grew in Shimerville and Powder Valley.  Near Old Zionsville, Yoder's school was closed because the teacher and nearly all of the students were stricken with the virus.

            On November 29, it was reported that "Influenza is in balance of uncertainty" as Spinnerstown, in Bucks County, reported its first death from the virus.  From Bally in Berks County to Old Zionsville in Lehigh County and Pennsburg in Montgomery County, cases of the flu were on the rise.

            By December 6, the epidemic in Trumbauersville was considered under control but someone in every household in the village of Corning in Lehigh County was infected with the flu virus.  The same was true for households in New Hanover Township in Montgomery County.

            There was also another death reported in Pennsburg at this time.

            A week later came the report that children were affected in later outbreaks of the flu, which was previously prevalent among adults.  It was also reported that every household in Spinnerstown had at least one member afflicted with influenza.

            While some communities were recovering, others were just beginning to be afflicted with the virus. Perhaps a nod to the fact the people didn't travel far or often back then.

            Christmas week saw more declines in areas where the cases had been declining, more increases in the areas where it already had increased, and more deaths.  Doctors had reached a point where they could no longer see all of their patients.  There just wasn't enough hours in the day – or enough energy left in the mind and body.  Doctors needed a rest.

            In the true spirit of the season, neighbors stepped up, putting themselves in danger while helping their sick friends.  Another good sign was the New Goshenhoppen Church would reopen its doors for services.

            Dozens of individuals in the Town and Country readership area died during October, November, and December of 1918. 

            By the end of January 1919 the news of the influenza pandemic was gone and the pandemic was over in our Four-County-Corner of the Commonwealth.


 

 

 

 

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