Spanish Flu begins and Pi Day

In the late winter of 1917, a handful of Indo-Chinese laborers crossing the US on their way to France stopped in Haskell County, Kansas for at least three days. They had limited contact with any local Americans, and what contacts there were, were casual at most. On the morning of 11 March 1918, Albert Martin Gitchell reported to sick call at Camp Funston, Kansas (on the site of the modern Fort Reilly). He complained of a high fever, aches and pains, and a cough. Usually, this would have meant isolation in a sick ward (which was done), but Gitchell was a cook, who had been serving food as late as the night before. By noon there were 107 influenza patients; in a week, over 500. By April, over 1,000. Even this would have been unremarkable if 46 hadn’t died–horribly, coughing lung matter out in their final moments, blue-in-the-face.

Red Cross in Detroit, Michigan during the Pandemic: Author’s grandmother third from right in white. Grampa got the flu but survived; Gramma’s hair turned white

What no one appreciated just then was that this H1N5 strain of influenza (so-called for the proteins in the outer shell of the virus) might have started as early as 1916 in Britain or France–to this day it is unclear. There were no centralized reporting mechanisms then, no CDC or WHO that anyone could recognize as such. Modern researchers believe that this strain of influenza may have been a close genetic match to the 1898 influenza, a milder form that swept the globe starting in China (as the flu always does) from October 1898 to March of 1899–flu season. It seems likely that the Vietnamese laborers carried the virulent Asian bug into Kansas, where it crossed with another strain, though the truth is unknowable.

What was remarkable about it wasn’t the “knock-me-down fever” that the flu was called, but that so many (proportionately) died, and not the elderly, infirm or very young who were usually flu fatalities. These were young people, healthy and in a prime state. Four deaths would have been odd, but 46 such horrible deaths was downright alarming. But the war came first, and the survivors–many still weak from the experience–shipped out in April and May for France, on slow-moving trains that stopped a dozen times before they reached whatever port they departed from–and spread the flu as they went.

At the time, medicine was in a state of transition. The only widely accepted vaccine was for smallpox; there were no antibiotics; there were still physicians whose medical training took about four months and did not involve looking at a cadaver. This bug spread from town to town, state to state, country to country. By June it had spread to most of the ports of debarkation and exploded worldwide. The Wilson administration was aware of the pandemic but forbade widespread news coverage of it because it would have been bad for morale. The British and French, Italians and everyone else had similar reasons for not covering it as the bodies stacked up in the morgues, ships arrived in port with bloody flux all over the decks and dead in the hundreds. For this reason, the only major European power that covered this plague in their mass media–the newspapers–was Spain, and that’s how it came to be known as the Spanish Flu.

This flu hit the sufferers suddenly and often violently. Caregivers came to know which sufferers were going to survive and which would not within the first few hours the symptoms presented. Extreme sufferers (about 20%) turned blue, cracked their ribs coughing, spewed black fluids from their mouth and nose, and died in hours..sometimes minutes. There was no treatment save codeine for their cough, and it hit those between the ages of 20 and 40 the hardest. Post-mortems showed the extreme sufferers were drowned in the detritus of their own immune systems that attacked the invading virus so vigorously that it killed their hosts. In milder forms, the affected simply weakened and died (40%) within days. The mildly afflicted–the lucky or strong 40%–suffered from a malaise that often lasted for years, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

By the second week in November 1918–when the War to End All Wars was ending–leading clinicians in the US and Britain, Russia (where the Revolution came to a brief halt) and even Japan were calculating the end of the human race. Most gave humanity perhaps six months to live. Many believed it had to be a new plague…a resurrected, reconstituted Black Death.

The American Army’s fatality roles 1917-18 were doubled by influenza. Large cities like Detroit and Chicago, Paris and London monitored traffic and imposed quarantines; rural communities and isolated islands stopped traffic altogether, frequently at gunpoint. A streetcar in Johannesburg loaded with passengers and departed a stop and five blocks later unloaded all of the 21 passengers and the conductor–dead. Children deprived of their caregivers starved to death, especially in urban areas. Funeral directors ran out of coffins and embalming fluids, which combined with shortages of gravediggers resulted in mass cremations: one in Vienna, Austria was said to have contained over 10,000 dead. Entire North African and Chinese villages were burned. Actuaries in the United States dropped the average life expectancy for 1918 from 55 to 37.

By the end of November, the rate of infection slowed, and by the end of January 1919, it became clear that the crisis had passed. It came again that winter, and once more in the winter of 1920-21, but the virulence seemed decreased, and the number of fatalities far less. Nearly 100 million people worldwide were killed directly or indirectly by the 1918 influenza; one in four (about a billion) were affected one way or another–sickened and survived like my mother’s father, overworked and weakened like my father’s father, or watched whole populations wiped out like my father’s uncle. In closing:

  • There are no lab samples, despite years of searching in graves: thus, there are no specific vaccines against the 1918 influenza.
  • Since the 1918 bug struck those in the prime of life–those who make vaccines–it is not clear that one could be made available if it should strike again.
  • The failure rate of the annual flu vaccine is about 30%; in bad years, like 2017-18, it rises as high as 60%. However, even failed or non-specific vaccines decrease the symptoms and the likelihood of retransmission.
  • Herd immunity is best sustained when 92% or more of any given population has been vaccinated, even with a non-specific vaccine.
  • The “reaction” to the flu shot shows that it is not only working but that the sufferer has already been exposed and is likely contagious.
  • About 20% of adults do not get regular flu shots.

Got your flu shot yet? Why not?

Pi Day

Um…yeah…

Thursday is Pi Day–3.14. It started out in 1988 as a celebration of mathematics by Larry Shaw of the San Francisco Exploratorium. The US Congress passed a non-binding resolution in 2009 recognizing 14 March as Pi Day. Nominally, this clever holiday has been celebrated or observed by throwing pies, holding mathematical symposiums, eating pizza and other more or less benign activities.

However, like many other things, Pi Day has been hijacked by…other interests. In 2005, an Oregon State physics major named Bobby Henderson sent an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education, which was then struggling with creationism and intelligent design requirements alongside more scientifically accepted versions of Earth’s origins. He suggested that it is as likely that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created everything as it was any other deity. The most significant phrase reads:

I don’t have a problem with religion. What I have a problem with is religion posing as science. If there is a god and he’s intelligent, then I would guess he has a sense of humor.

Bobby Henderson

Not exactly 97 Theses nailed to a door, but in the 21st century, it was enough. Soon, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster–the Pastafarians–was born. A book entitled The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was released in 2006. There are websites, and more books, and the odd, odd convention, and somehow piracy and other odd things got tossed in the chaotic mix. Mostly the Pastafarians are polking fun at organized religion, especially when it pretends to circumvent falsifiability.

Oh, and Pi Day is celebrated by some Pastafarian sects as recognition of a related deity. It is observed by reverently eating pizza…at least, according to my late buddy Bill, may Pasta rest his soul.

Advertisements

Ninety-Five Theses, The Last Judgement, The Spanish Flu, Reuben James, and Halloween

31 October has been a very auspicious day for many things. When Davey patented the miner’s safety lamp on this day in 1815, and Dunlop patented the pneumatic bicycle tire on this day in 1888 those were the beginnings of great things.  So was the completion of the first coast to coast paved highway in America, the Lincoln Highway, in 1913.  And, LBJ ordered the bombing of North Vietnam halted on 31 October 1968, more to help Hubert Humphrey beat Richard Nixon in the upcoming election than to help the Vietnamese.  But that didn’t help his vice-president, and Nixon won anyway.  But many auspicious other things happened on 31 October.

By the beginning of the 16th Century, the European world was divided into two realms: The Church and Everyone Else.  The Church held sway over most civil matters, and everyone else could do whatever it was that they wanted to do that the Church told them they could do.  A large source of revenue for Rome was the sale of indulgences.  These were pieces of paper run out on that new printing press gadget which, blessed by the Holy See,  were intended to reduce a sinner’s punishment after death.  Great if one could afford it, but very few could.  This was an age when most people wouldn’t see more than a handful of copper coins in a lifetime, and the Church was charging sacks of gold for them.  Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins. There were other issues as well, notably the foundation of the merits of saints, that he included in an academic argument called the Ninety-Five Theses that he sent to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz (his earthly boss), on 31 October 1517. This began what is now called the Protestant Reformation, which was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church in temporal matters.

Martin Luther argued that the sale of indulgences was, to put it mildly, wrong, that the Pope had no influence over the amelioration of sins.

While the sale of indulgences was lucrative, it enabled the Church to be a great patron of the arts.  Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.  Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, but the work was unfinished until the Last Judgement was finished a quarter century later, on 31 October 1541 on a commission  from Paul III. As High Renaissance art goes the Sistine gets no higher, and for an artist who preferred sculpture the work is all the more remarkable.  The Last Judgement depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the judgement of all of humanity, as was then current Church doctrine. A figurative end of the world, if nothing else.

Some of the best known works of Renaissance art were created at the behest of churchmen while the Reformation raged.

But it was much later, on the other side of the world, that leading scholars were calculating the end of humanity   By 31 October 1918, the Great Influenza, the “Spanish Flu,” had killed at least 21,000 people in the United States alone—that month alone, and most in the last half.  Worldwide deaths numbered in the millions.  Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems. There were clinicians who were calculating that, at the rate the disease was killing its victims, humanity would become extinct within four to six months.  The wave receded at the end of November, only to flare again at the end of 1919, and again in 1922.  One in four humans on Earth were affected either directly or indirectly.  Unofficial death tolls today are at about one hundred million. This exceeds the death toll from all causes in WWI, even by the most pessimistic scholars, by a factor of five.

Raging from sometime in 1917 to about 1922 in several different waves, the plague could kill in hours, with the victims literally drowning in the detritus of their own immune systems.

And it wasn’t much after that, humanity having survived the flu, that the United States inched closer to war once again. By 1941, the US Navy was performing “neutrality patrols” over half the Atlantic Ocean.  USS Reuben James (DD-245), a Clemson class four-stack destroyer commissioned in 1920 that was a part of Patrol Three out of Iceland, was escorting eastbound convoy HX 156 out of Halifax on the morning of 31 October 1941 when she was struck by a torpedo from U-552 that was meant for an ammunition ship in the convoy. A forward magazine exploded on Reuben James, blowing her bow off.  The rest of the ship managed to survive another five minutes before it sank, claiming all but 44 enlisted men. The issue with Reuben James was less that the United States was not yet at war or the loss of over a hundred men, but that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, arguably providing material assistance to a belligerent in violation not only of international conventions but also of US law.  While the press reported the sinking, President Roosevelt didn’t make much of an issue of it as he might have, given the legal ambiguities of the “Neutrality Patrol.”

The issue with Reuben James was that the vessel was escorting a convoy of a nation that was at war, providing assistance to a belligerent in violation  of US law.  

Today also marks the “holiday” of Halloween, that day when people of all ages dress up in costumes and disguises from the sublime to the ridiculous, the crude to the superb, to indulge themselves in merriment, garage-burning (especially in Detroit), candy-begging, and other things that, at any other time, would be viewed as either criminal or just plain nuts. While your intrepid researcher did indulge in the past, it has been some years since he felt compelled to take part personally in the “festivities,” other than to put up some decorations (discontinued some years ago) and hand out candy (discontinued this year).  While OK for many, this correspondent is done with it. While the roots of Halloween are unclear, it is the eve of the All Hallows Day observance in the liturgical year for remembering the dead. Of late the harmless holiday has been associated with paganism, Satan-worship, and other tortured non-connections.  And on some college campuses, costumes must be pre-approved by committees of oh-so-sensitive persons who need to make certain that no one is offended, and no cultures are appropriated, and no one is demeaned–essentially that no one enjoys themselves.  At last report, there were very few costumes (other than perhaps simple sheets that could be construed as KKK garb and thus even they were being nixed) that were being approved.

Leave it to academics to suck the joy out of everything.