In early 1918 — around the time my dad’s Uncle Albert Barney Charboneau registered for the WWI draft in Dolgeville, Herkimer Co., N.Y. — a severe influenza took hold in Haskell County, Kansas, just west of Dodge City.
I doubt that Uncle Albert or any of the Charboneau family were aware of this development. Yet the Haskell County cases appear to mark the emergence of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
In his book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History1 author John M. Barry sums up the influenza’s spread.
Epidemiological evidence suggests that that a new influenza virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas, early in early 1918. Evidence further suggests that this virus traveled east across the state to a huge army base, and from there to Europe. Later it began its sweep through North America, through Europe, through South America, through Asia and Africa, through isolated islands in the Pacific, through all the wide world. In its wake followed a keening sound that rose from the throats of mourners like the wind. The evidence comes from Dr. Loring Miner.2
A Kansas doctor warns the world
According to Barry, Haskell County physician Dr. Loring Miner became alarmed when patients began showing up in early 1918 with a particularly severe influenza that was “violent, rapid in its progress through the body, and sometimes lethal” — and in such numbers that they soon overwhelmed his small practice.3
By mid-March when civilian cases subsided, Dr. Miner remained concerned and alerted national public health officials. His warning appeared in the weekly journal Public Health Reports, which circulated in the U.S. and abroad — the first mention of the deadly influenza that would sweep the globe.4
The influenza spreads to Camp Funston
Meanwhile — about 300 miles east of Haskell County, Kansas — Camp Funston in Ft. Riley housed some 50,000 new military troops in overcrowded barracks and tents that had been hastily thrown together in 1917.5
Recruits from Haskell County routinely trained at Camp Funston –and a particularly hard winter meant the soldiers were often huddled together for warmth.6
So after a cook at Camp Funston fell ill with influenza on March 4, 1918, within weeks more than 1,100 soldiers were sick in hospital and thousands more required infirmary treatment — primarily with a milder strain of the Haskell influenza, but one that could mutate to a deadlier version.7
From there, the virus began its march with WWI troops to other bases across the U.S., to the front in Europe, then around the world — mutating as it went — in a spreading pattern similar to that of the coronavirus, which we are all too familiar with.
Then a second wave of the influenza returned to the U.S. in its deadlier form in the fall of 1918 — which is when it caught up with Uncle Albert.
Up next: The spread of the deadly 1918 influenza — around the world and back to Dolgeville. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.
© 2020 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.