Flu strains a recurring challenge
Just over a century ago, beginning in the fall of 1918, a global pandemic circled the globe. Known as the Spanish Influenza, it coincided with World War I and was thought to have entered the United States when an overseas soldier returned to an Army Camp in Oklahoma.
Not far to the south, near Little Rock, Arkansas; a nurse and Montgomery native, would care for soldiers who’d contracted the flu. Margaret Shaffer of White Deer Valley was assigned to Camp Pike in early April 1918.
The camp saw the comings and goings of soldiers, both training replacements for the American Expeditionary Forces for overseas and receiving units of men from other camps assigned by local draft boards.
Nurse Shaffer’s 11-month stay would find her overseeing a barracks converted into a hospital ward for the increasing patient load.
Two McConnel relatives from the Pennsdale area had gone off to war. In late May 1918, Clarence McConnel joined the Medical Corps at Fort Slocum, NY. He would survive the pandemic; however, Ray McConnel, age 31, would die stateside of the flu. The latter is interred at Old Immanuel Cemetery in Muncy Creek Township.
One Army doctor was James Akehurst of Baltimore, grandfather of Stossie Shaheen of Hughesville. The following was gleaned from his letters home from Camp Sevier in North Carolina. “We are having an epidemic of Spanish influenza, the men get quite sick with the base hospital overwhelmed with cases. They have taken all our men to help with the nursing, thus our training program is at a standstill. All empty tents in our section are being filled up with cases of influenza.”
On Oct. 4, 1918, Dr. Akehurst wrote, “The flu is with us in all its glory and thousands of soldiers are down with it. New officers are coming everyday, but we shall not get anymore until the epidemic is over. Officers are looking after the sick, it seems the same state of affairs are present all over the country. We are forbidden to go to any place of public entertainment.”
Later that month the doctor wrote, “Yesterday 35 men died and we still have 500 cases on hand. I visited the dead house last night to take in a detail of men to prepare bodies for burial. Seventy-five bodies were lined up in rows prepared for shipment. In compliance with orders from Washington, every man and officer is getting an injection of Anti-Pneumonia serum as a preventative.”
Serving a six-month stint at the same camp as Akehurst was Muncy native Dr. James R. Rankin.
Local medical physicians having served in World War I during the ravage of the Spanish Flu include the following: Dr. Harold F. Baker, who located in Muncy and was affiliated with the Muncy Valley Hospital where he rapidly forged to the front as a successful general practitioner of medicine and surgery.
Dr. Raymond J. Bower of DuBoistown was educated at Muncy Normal School and Jefferson Medical Center. During the war, Bower was assigned as a surgeon with the United States Navy Transportation Hospital out of Washington. As a doctor on ship, he crossed the Atlantic 23 times. Discharged in Oct. 1919, he continued on the surgical staff at Williamsport Hospital.
James H. Burrows, MD, served as a medical examiner for two years before building a practice at Williamsport Hospital.
A native of Montgomery, Dr. Philip H. Decker was with the Navy Medical Corps transport service over a 14-month period including during the flue epidemic.
On the home front, citizens were dealing with shortages, including fuel.
In early January, 1918, the Hughesville Mail printed the following concerning Picture Rocks; “Owing to the scarcity of fuel, the chemical fire engine will be stored at Burrow’s Garage for the Winter.”
Coal was at a premium as it was needed for factory output of war needs and fueling transport ships to Europe. That, along with fears of continued flu outbreaks, rendered schools and church services cancelled.