American Experience "Influenza 1918"

American Experience "Influenza 1918"

Mon, 01/18/2010 - 9:00pm

Terrified by the sudden death all around them, Americans sought protection from the dreaded influenza epidemic of 1918 with both traditional medical techniques, such as surgical masks, and folk remedies.

Credit: American Red Cross

This is the story of the post-WWI spread of Spanish Influenza across America.

As the threat of a flu pandemic looms worldwide, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE reprises Influenza 1918,airing Monday, January 18, 2010, 9:00-10:00 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11). Linda Hunt narrates.
Before it was over, the worst epidemic the United States has ever known would kill more than 500,000 Americans — more than all the combat deaths of the 20th century combined. This film “plays like a bio-thriller straight out of Hollywood,” according to the New York Post.
“For the survivors we spoke to,” says producer/director Robert Kenner, “the memory is one of horror and fear — which may explain why many Americans were willing to let those few terrible months fade into obscurity.”
In March 1918, the disease began infecting soldiers at a rapid pace. By September, it had spread to the civilian population, moving swiftly down the eastern seaboard to New York, Philadelphia and beyond. People could be healthy in the morning and dead by nightfall. Others died more slowly, suffocating from the buildup of liquid in their lungs.
With medical science powerless, many people turned to folk remedies: garlic, camphor balls, kerosene on sugar, boneset tea. Public health officials distributed masks, closed schools, even forbade spitting on the streets.
“Everybody was living in deadly fear because it was so quick, so sudden and so terrifying,” says William Sardo, the son of a funeral director whose home was stacked with caskets of flu victims. “It destroyed the intimacy that existed amongst people.”
Surgeon General Vaughn reached a frightening conclusion. “If the epidemic continues its mathematical rate of acceleration,” he announced, “civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth within a few weeks.” Then, just as suddenly as it struck, the calamitous disease abruptly began to vanish. By mid-November, the numbers of dead were plunging. “In light of our knowledge of influenza,” says Dr. Shirley Fannin, a Los Angeles County public health official, “we do understand that it probably ran out of fuel. It ran out of people who were susceptible and could be infected.”