According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Commonwealth has recently seen as many as 1,700 new cases of the flu every week. The influenza scare has made national headlines for more than a month and stayed there even through the school shooting in Florida and various presidential insults, as flu-related hospitalizations have risen high enough to spur facilities in California to arrange overflow tents in parking lots to keep up with the influx of patients.
Flash back to 100 years ago, when the Spanish flu epidemic was similarly worrying Americans. With vaccine developments not nearly as ubiquitous as they are in 2018, many Boston-area doctors relied on pseudoscience and, out of both desperation and ignorance, said and did whatever they could to tame an ongoing public outrage about flu deaths. Countless citizens worried they could drop dead next. By the end of 1918, more than 1,000 people had died from the flu in Boston alone.
Doctors hurriedly dreamed up creative, if often ridiculous, cures, the whole time reassuring people that the outbreak was contained. Some imprudently advised their patients to inhale things like “acid gas” fumes, while others sought more modern remedies. At the dawn of the 1918 epidemic, Boston Mayor Andrew Peters publicly received a flu shot in an effort to spread awareness.
Of course, New Englanders have endured influenza for more than a century. Before the Spanish flu, people often suffered from what was commonly called the grippe. Struggling to slow the rising death toll, people often relied on whiskey, which had long been advertised as an effective remedy against most sicknesses. In the late 1800s and even during Prohibition in the 1920s, Boston officials issued permits for doctors to prescribe whiskey to flu patients.
Another popular solution in the Boston area was quinine, a compound commonly used at the time to fight diseases, including malaria. The media played a significant role in the response effort, and in 1889 began pushing quinine as a better alternative to whiskey, leading to the drug seeing a five-times increase in sales. Quinine overdoses eventually became frequent; still, as reliable remedies continued to elude health officials, some pharmacists went rogue. One outlaw became notorious around the city for selling a home-brewed solution; his tagline: The only sure cure for the grippe.
Looking back, it seems like several outlets went to great lengths to blame anyone and everyone besides the government. In one instance, a writer at the Boston Daily Globe even accused the Chinese community of having and withholding the antidote, a statement based on the reporter’s personal observation that Chinatown residents had avoided the flu altogether.
The deaths confused even the most respected of doctors. Influential US Surgeon General Rupert Blue told the Boston Sunday Post in 1919 that the germ was “preparing for a mighty attack on the human race.”
After the dust settled in the early 1920s, details of the outbreaks slowly vanished from the popular narrative. But as the current nightmare mounts—Massachusetts has seen more than 100 flu deaths a week since the beginning of the year—it may be helpful to revisit our past and to see how political and healthcare leaders before us moved past hysterics to find solutions.