‘The Blue Death’—the influenza epidemic of 1918

The ‘Great Influenza Epidemic’ reached its height in the last quarter of 1918, though there had been a noticeable increase in influenza cases in the preceding year.  As the virus became more virulent, some patients developed complications, notably pneumonia or meningitis, for which there was no reliable treatment.  Those in their late teens and twenties were particularly at risk and, quoting Jim Duffy’s book, The Blue Death, Rod Graham, notes that the disease is said to have caused more deaths in 24 weeks (in late 1918 and early 1919) than AIDS has caused in over 24 years or the Black Death did in over a century.

The suggestion that a pandemic is less dangerous in its early months, seems to be borne out by an article in the July 1918 edition of The Springbok Magazine.  In Six Days with the “flu” an anonymous serviceman describes his admission to hospital, the extent of the illness, his treatment and, after six days, his discharge.  Even at that stage in 1918, he was describing a huge influenza ward—“You try to count the number of beds in the ward but you cannot see the end; it fades away in the dim distance, and you shut out the miles of beds and clutch the nearest.”  (And, of course, the nurses were always compared to angels!)

The earliest fatality at the South African Military Hospital in Richmond Park, and which is probably attributable to the 1918 influenza epidemic, was the death from ‘pneumonia’ on 3 October 1918, of Sergeant Lancelot de la Penha Garcia of the South African Labour Corps.  Before the death of Sergeant Garcia, there had only been twelve deaths at the hospital in the time since its opening in 1916. In only one case was the cause recorded as pneumonia, and that had occurred nearly two years previously.

The death a fortnight later, of Private Ernest Michael Smith, also from ‘pneumonia’ marked the start of a truly bleak three weeks at the hospital.  Excluding from the count the earlier case of Sergeant Garcia, of the 13 patients to die from 18 October to 7 November, the cause was given as pneumonia in four cases and as influenza in seven.  There was also a case where the cause of death was given as ‘influenza and pneumonia’. Only one other patient died in that period, and that was as a consequence of tetanus, from the infection of wounds he had sustained on active service.  It is a tribute to the medical treatment of subsequent service personnel that, in spite of the numerous cases of influenza in Richmond, that occurred well into 1919,  there were no further deaths from influenza or pneumonia at the hospital that year, and indeed, only one more case of ‘pneumonia’, in late February 1919.

Among the victims were four members of the Medical Staff at the South African Military Hospital in Richmond Park, who died within a few days of each other, in the last days of October, and the first week of November.  Influenza deaths peaked in Richmond in the three weeks leading up to Armistice Day.  Not far from the hospital, at his family home, Parkgate in Petersham, Company Quarter Master Sergeant, Gerald Farren, East Surrey Regiment, was to die from influenza on 4 November.

Private Martin Jacobus van Dyk Osler, died on 29 October 1918, followed the following day by the loss of two other members of the Medical Corps, Private Frank Fenning Fuller Kidson and Lance Corporal L. V. McCallumPrivate Edgar Porter, died three days later, on 2 November.

Another member of staff, a much-loved nursing sister, Dorah Bernstein, S.A.N.S., died from influenza on 6 November.  Her funeral cortege started its journey from the hospital mortuary with her coffin borne out of the hospital by Jewish orderlies of the S.A.M.C.  Like the hospital’s other influenza victims of the epidemic, she was buried  with full military honours, thought at Willesden Cemetery rather than at Richmond.

Source List
Barry, J. M., The Great Influenza: the epic story of the deadliest plague in history,
Duffy, J., ‘The Blue Death’, http://magazine.jhsph.edu/2004/fall/prologues/index.html, accessed 18/10/2016.
Graham, R., ‘Author brings the Great Influenza to the School’, http://www.jhsph.edu/news/stories/2005/great-influenza.html, accessed 6/5/2016.
The Springbok Blue, ‘Six days with the Flu’, July 1918, p.36–38.
The Springbok Magazine, ‘Obituary.  Staff Nurse Sarah (sic) Bernstein, December 1918, p.73–74.

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About Margaret Frood

Margaret Frood is a Family and Local Historian with an insatiable curiosity about the partially told stories of a family's past. Her four war memorial blogs have been created in the hope that they will help to rescue from oblivion the stories of those listed on the war memorials of Petersham, Ham and Tur Langton, as well as Southern Africans commemorated in the UK and in Western Europe.
This entry was posted in Military Hospitals, South African Medical Corps (SAMC), South African Military Hospital Richmond, South African Nursing Services (SANS), Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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