Tony Vagneur: We should be learning from 1918 history, not repeating it |

Tony Vagneur: We should be learning from 1918 history, not repeating it

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

“Down in Carbondale, just as soon as the Flu showed up there, the town council put on the lid and put it on right and are keeping it on. No one is permitted to go into or to leave the town; no visiting is permitted under any circumstances; if a person goes to a home where there is a case of the Flu, he or she stays right there until released by the physician. The result will be that they will stamp out the Flu in Carbondale in short order.” — Aspen-Democrat Times Nov. 12, 1918.

The paper then went on to excoriate the Aspen health board for not having very strict rules when it came to the disease, including more stringent quarantines. We’re talking Spanish Influenza here.

COVID-19 is a tough virus to deal with, but looking back at the influenza epidemic of 1918 in Aspen, a degree of understanding might be helpful. Just like with the coronavirus, there was some advance warning that we might get hit hard, but what was there to do in 1918. The first case in the U.S. can be traced to the army barracks at Camp Funston in Kansas, March 1918.

There were no vaccines to help prevent flu infection (in fact, the flu virus wasn’t isolated until 1933), no antiviral drugs to treat flu illness, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial illnesses that can be associated with flu infections. Just like today, pneumonia was a leading cause of death.

Fresh air was highly advocated; quinine was thought to be helpful; aspirin was regularly recommended as a pain killer; in fact, it is estimated that many people died from aspirin overdose, misdiagnosed as influenza-caused pneumonia, which can collaterally cause lung tissue to swell and restrict breathing. Other available tools to control the spread of the virus were largely limited to non-drug therapies, such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limits on public gatherings. Doctors, nurses, and those assisting sick family members were encouraged to wear masks. Tools we’re still using today.

The science behind these recommended treatments was very young and, just like today, applied inconsistently. The word “lockdown” doesn’t seem to appear in literature of the day, and it was generally left up to local mayors to decide the course of preventive action to take. The mayor of Philadelphia, for example, didn’t believe the Spanish Flu was any more virulent than ordinary flu and encouraged citizens to attend the September 1918 Liberty Loan celebrations in his city. Within days, over a thousand of unnecessary deaths occurred, overwhelming mortuaries.

In Aspen, on Oct. 14, 1918, Mayor Wagner declared that Spanish Influenza had hit town and schools, churches, assembly halls, theaters, and all public gatherings were banned. If one had the flu, and not hospitalized, quarantine at home was the only other option.

A handwritten report, discovered at the Aspen Historical Society, showing the march of the flu in Aspen from Oct. 18, 1918, to Nov. 15, 1918, indicates there were 47 deaths in 21 days. Overall, the flu wiped out 7% of Aspen’s population.

Records from the Citizens’ Hospital, with the ever-ubiquitous Dr. Warren Twining in charge, indicate that this strain of influenza killed people of all demographics, not just the very young and very old. Mothers in their 30s with four or five children succumbed; in some cases, the children died, as well. Men, considered quite healthy, also fell victim to the grim reaper, leaving behind widows and hungry children. There are stories of widows with young children moving in together to make ends meet.

In a world just learning about germs and the transmission of infectious disease, it’s tragic to read accounts of some behavior, taking into account how miserable the flu can make one feel. A bed, occupied by a dying victim, was sometimes fair game once that person died, and might be crawled into by another person, well or sick, without any disinfection or change of sheets.

The Democrat-Times castigated people for the above behavior, while at the same time warning them that homemade medicines hawked by charlatans of the day were useless as a prophylaxis or cure for the disease. Do not fall prey to these gimmicks, the papers opined, see a trusted physician.

It was an ugly time in Aspen; no one knows for certain where the virus originated, although for various reasons it was called the Spanish Influenza. It was an H1N1 virus, which we’ve seen again, more recently. And now we’re learning about COVID-19. Play it safe.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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