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Mysteries From The Morgue: How a community came together to squelch Spanish influenza

A look back at 1918, when volunteers served in 'diet kitchens' to feed the sick

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ADAMS — On Oct. 18, 1918, 700 workers of the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Co. were out sick with "the grippe," silencing a third of the Berkshire Mills' 6,500 looms.

Three weeks earlier, the town had reported its first cases of Spanish influenza — 16 sick and one death. Now, the town had 850 recorded cases and 28 deaths from the Spanish flu or flu-related pneumonia. But, town health officials suspected the number was much higher, around 2,000 infected individuals.

And while 300 of those 850 reported cases had recovered, new cases in the town were being reported at rates higher and faster than in other communities. Over the next two days, 165 new cases (85 on Oct. 19 and 80 on Oct. 20) were recorded by the town's two attending physicians. In the same two-day period, North Adams would report a total of 85 new cases.

The alarmingly fast increase in cases caught the attention of state and federal health officials, who sent two additional doctors and nurses, as well as representatives to help the Board of Health take corrective action that would "stamp out influenza."

Prior to state and federal involvement, the Board of Health closed the town's churches, schools and theaters and canceled other large pubic gatherings. Two town physicians were making house calls, each visiting up to 40 households, typically with more than one sick member, in a single day. Two nurses were also attending to the sick, often doing washing and cleaning in addition to caring for the ill during the visits. Miss Florence Boom volunteered her personal car, driving one of the nurses house to house. A high school teacher, Angie Sanderson, also volunteered her services, tending to the sick in their homes.

The women reported dire conditions in the homes they visited, where often, whole families were sick. In one report, a husband was taking care of his wife and nine children, all who were sick. The nurse reported that he was doing his best, but was now low on food and resources. Also reported was the fact the flu was spreading fastest in the Polish sections of town, where neighborhoods were thickly settled and some families only spoke Polish.

Dr. H. W. Streeter, the county's representative to the state Department of Health, wasted no time when he arrived on Oct. 18. He immediately ordered the closure of pool halls, soda fountains, saloons and liquor stores. "Whiskey is not medicine," he said. (Under protest, Streeter allowed saloons and liquor stores to reopen. Saloons in order to remain open had to wash all their glasses with hot water after each use.) Public funerals were also banned; with only 15 family members allowed at a burial.

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He ordered a "diet kitchen" open to make gruel, broths, soups and other hot meals to be delivered to the sick and those caring for them. He ordered those with automobiles to drive the doctors and nurses, who were traveling on foot, to the homes of the ill. Streeter gathered volunteers to help care for the ill, specifically seeking out Polish-speaking volunteers to help out in the Polish neighborhoods. He ordered the town dispensary be open 24 hours a day and put the two state-provided doctors on 12-hour shifts to cover the overflow caseloads of the doctors and nurses. He enlisted the nuns of Notre Dame and St. Stanislaus to care for the healthy children of infected families.

The Berkshire Mills were sprayed with disinfectant and healthy mill workers, absent to care of their ill relatives, were encouraged to return to work and let volunteers take over their care. Volunteers were issued masks and hospital gowns to wear. And a public information campaign, on how the flu was spread and on prevention, was started. An emphasis on the importance of handwashing, as well as covering the mouth and nose during a sneeze or cough.

Restrictions remained in place until Oct. 31, when most bans were lifted. Schools, churches, the library, theaters and other public places of gathering were able to reopen, although refined rules for funerals, soda fountains and saloons remained in place. State officials also established three rules in regard to influenza: a 10-day isolation period for infected persons as determined by the Board of Health; no person other than the attending physician and necessary caretakers could enter the room of a person with influenza; all children exposed to influenza were to be excluded from attending school for five days of the last day of exposure.

When health officials began to see a steady decline in new influenza cases and greater numbers of individuals recovering without developing pneumonia, the work of the "diet kitchen" was lauded with not only helping to nourish the ill, but also with bringing together the community in helping heal the sick.

On Nov. 2, it was reported the "diet kitchen" had operated for nine days, from Oct. 21-29, serving 778 individuals, an average of 87 per day. The largest number of adults fed on any one day was 45, while the largest number of children was 89. Sanderson and Edna Hammond, who "had received the anti-influenza serum treatment" personally delivered soup, broth, custards and light meals to the homes. During the visits, they assessed the needs of the sick to prepare for the next day. As individuals were able to provide for themselves, the were dropped from the program.

But the real success for some was the interest in the kitchen, where 17 volunteers prepped food under the guidance of the Anna R. Manual, the high school's supervisor of household arts. And some 43 residents donated money and food to the kitchen.

By Nov. 4, as new cases of influenza waned across the county, the ban on public funerals was lifted in Adams. Rules regarding the washing of glasses, plates and silverware in hot water after every use remained in place for saloons and soda fountains.

Spanish influenza and flu-related pneumonia accounted for at least 70 deaths in the town between Sept. 18 and Dec. 31. Across the state, flu deaths in Massachusetts were estimated to be 45,000 from Sept. 1, 1918 to Jan. 16, 1919, but those numbers are now considered low, according to the New England Historical Society. It is estimated 500 million people in the world were infected with Spanish influenza and that it was responsible for 50 million deaths, 675,000 in the U.S.


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