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Feb. 27, 2021

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Clark County History: Vancouver Barracks and Spanish flu

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Vancouver’s first Spanish flu warning came in a Spruce Production Division memo issued Sept. 24, 1918, declaring it was nearby. It said droplets spread the disease and asked all soldiers to shun large groups, sneeze or cough into handkerchiefs, avoid civilian mingling, practice personal hygiene and request medical officers spray their throats with a solution of 1 percent zinc sulfide.

Military doctors, like Col. R.G. Ebert at the spruce plant, received an undated memo issued by the Oregon division. It advised soldiers to sleep with windows open, gargle twice daily with Dobell’s or other antiseptic solutions and dodge crowds. This memo contained a 12-point prevention list from the U.S. Public Health Services that The Columbian published verbatim on Oct. 3, 1918.

The city’s public health officer, Dr. J. Chalmers, closed schools, theaters, pool and dance halls and canceled lodge meetings. Then he caught influenza but recovered. After identifying 50 cases, barracks doctors quarantined the garrison Oct. 10. Half of the students at the state school for the deaf had infections. So did students at the school for the blind; in his autobiography, Emil Fries recalls his loneliness when isolated for contracting the flu.

Fifty-one more cases hit. Oct. 18 presented a thousand cases. Judges postponed trials. On Oct. 25, Dr. Miles Leiser died of influenza. The post hospital moved patients to other barracks buildings for treatment. Forty barracks soldiers went to Portland as hospital assistants. The Portland Railway halted Vancouver trolley service. Overwhelmed, doctors busy treating patients wrote no reports.

St. Joseph’s Hospital overflowed with patients and ran out of beds. The Red Cross set up an emergency hospital in St. James Parish and pleaded for 15 nurses offering $30 to $50 a month. Folk cures abounded. One claimed half an onion placed at the center of a room absorbed the disease.

On Nov. 2, barracks doctors quarantined the camp again to prevent further civilian infections. Military and civilian doctors faced a plague they could not cure. They never defeated the Spanish flu, although by 1920 the infections stopped. Descendants of this H1N1 virus hit again in 1957, 1968 and 2009. Even now, we expect a yearly flu season.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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