Thursday, August 27, 2009

Portland's response to the 1918 influenza pandemic

Available online this morning from the Portland Tribune is an article by Peter Korn titled "Spanish flu epidemic hit Portland hard". A timely topic indeed, with today's news outlets issuing dire warnings of the possibility of 90,000 deaths from the H1N1 virus now circulating worldwide.

So it's not as coincidental as it may seem that we too have been researching the 1918 outbreak in Portland, for an article to be published in the September 4 issue of the Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland's newspaper, The Scribe. A comparison of the two articles will show some differences of interpretation. While Mr. Korn emphasizes the harshness of the measures taken by local health officials during the epidemic, our sources indicated that the city's mayor, Christian Scientist George Baker, and City Health Officer George Parrish were both reluctant to enforce, for example, the face mask ordinance due to doubts about its efficacy. Portland's small medical community, already depleted by wartime call-ups, was divided at times between older practitioners who had seen deadly flu strains before, and younger docs who had never experienced anything like the disease that burst onto the scene in the fall of 1918. Calls went out for all qualified nurses to identify themselves to local health authorities, and makeshift hospital facilities sprung up in towns across the state.

History won't protect us from coming plagues, but learning its lessons might help responders prepare. And anyway, it's really quite fascinating! So check out Korn's article in the Tribune and our upcoming article in the Scribe and see what you think. If you're really eager to learn more, you might also be interested in these additional resources:

Penner, Liisa. The 1918-19 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Epidemic in Clatsop County: A Chronology. Cumtux : Clatsop County Historical Society quarterly 17 (1997), 31-41.

Woolley, Ivan M. The 1918 'Spanish Influenza' Pandemic in Oregon. Oregon historical quarterly 3 (1963), 246-258.

Alley, Bill. Spanish influenza gripped Medford in 1918-19. Medford Mail Tribune (

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