N. Roy Grist

Smithsonian Magazine has an article about the Spanish Influenza of 1918, the most severe pandemic in recent history.

It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

Fort Devens, a military camp about 40 miles from Boston, was among the sites hardest hit by the 1918 influenza epidemic. On September 1, some 45,000 soldiers waiting to be deployed to France were stationed at the fort; by September 23, according to the New England Historical Society, 10,500 cases of the flu had broken out among this group of military men.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Physician N. Roy Grist described the devastation to his friend Burt in a graphic September 29 letter sent from Devens’ “Surgical Ward No. 16.”

These men start with what appears to be an attack of la grippe or influenza, and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have the mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face, until it is hard to distinguish the coloured men from the white. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand it to see one, two or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies sort of gets on your nerves.

On average, wrote the doctor, around 100 patients died each day.

. . . .

Grist’s letter is “a remarkably distinct and accurate description of what it was like to be in the midst of this,” says Bristow. “And then it goes on to talk about how difficult it is to be a doctor, … this sense of not being able to do as much as one might like and how exhausting it all is.”

Toward the end of the letter, Grist notes how much he wishes Burt, a fellow physician, was stationed at Fort Devens with him.

It’s more comfortable when one has a friend about. … I want to find some fellow who will not ‘talk shop’ but there ain’t none, no how. We eat it, sleep it, and dream it, to say nothing of breathing it 16 hours a day. I would be very grateful indeed if you would drop me a line or two once in a while, and I promise you that if you ever get into a fix like this, I will do the same for you.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine