by Len Lear
During Pennsylvania’s “stay at home” order, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion at 200 W. Tulpehocken St. in Germantown is hosting a live question-and-answer ZOOM meeting with Robert D. Hicks, Ph.D, Senior Consulting Scholar at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 19 S. 22nd St., and co-organizer of their 1918 flu exhibit, which opened in January and will go on for five years.
The city of Philadelphia was one of the hardest hit by that epidemic, claiming 20,000 lives. Participants are encouraged to bring their own stories from Philadelphia’s past to share. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the oldest professional organization in the country, was founded in 1787 when 24 physicians gathered “to advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery.”
Dr. Hicks has written three books, chapters of a dozen books and between 50 and 100 essays and articles. (“I don’t know the exact number.”) His doctorate in maritime history was earned at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, and at the University of Arizona he obtained a B.A. in anthropology and archeology and an M.A. in applied anthropology.
“The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 killed more people than any other epidemic in human history, maybe as many as 100 million worldwide,” Dr. Hicks told us in an interview last Friday. “Yet our current exhibit is the first public memorial in Philadelphia to commemorate it. President Woodrow Wilson never even mentioned it publicly, even though 12,000 people died in Philadelphia of it in a five-week period. He did not want to distract from the war effort (World War 1).
“When the word got out about our exhibit, people started contacting us and telling stories about their relatives who died of the flu at the time. So we incorporated 50 to 70 of those stories into our exhibit. The New York times even wrote about it. There were mass graves. The stories run from the mildly amusing to the grotesque. For example, one family took the body of their dead child on public transportation downtown and showed the body to officials so they could get a death certificate.
“When the flu began to appear in 1918, death rates skyrocketed. It took everybody by surprise, but it was not part of the national narrative. Not until the 1930s was it even identified, and there was not an effective vaccine until the end of World War II. In 1918, 30 percent of our city’s doctors and 50 percent of the nurses were in Europe with the troops. And no one gave serious thought to stockpiling supplies, which we should be able to learn from.
“For example, we should all have emergency plans for our households. If the power goes out, can we sustain ourselves for 10 days to two weeks? If we have to leave our house for an extended period of time, where would we go? In that situation, people would get very competitive very fast. We also need a strong alliance that includes the government, the scientific experts and the population at large, which we clearly do not have now.”
Hicks is disdainful of those who are in a hurry to get back to business as usual, like Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, who has just reopened bowling alleys, nail salons, etc. There have always been epidemics and pandemics throughout history, and there will always be more, he emphasizes, although we can minimize the harm to a degree if we are well organized and prepared.
“In the 1830s people were worried about outbreaks of typhoid fever, cholera and yellow fever,” he said. “In the 1830s there was a cholera outbreak, but the authorities in New York had a plan in place to stave it off, and as a result, they were not hit too hard. By contrast, the Philadelphia was very hard hit because they were not prepared. (There were cholera outbreaks in Philadelphia in 1832, 1849 and 1866.)
“There are a lot of flu variants, and they come in multiple waves. They do not stay the same. The Mutter Museum has a specimen of a man’s intestines from the 1840s in Philadelphia. Experts from McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) came down and were able to extract DNA from it, the first time that has happened. They found that the strain (of the flu) that killed him had come from Europe around 1811. You can expect old strains to come back, so we have to have a coherent national policy and not keep changing messages, which has been happening.
“We absolutely know that self-isolation works. In 1918 nothing was ever said about handwashing. They did not know how viruses are transmitted, but we do. We must learn from the past!”
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