Between the Lines

With columnist Anna Marie Lux.

Talk reflects on Great War's impact on medicine, health

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, September 16, 2017

As a historian of medicine, Elizabeth Hachten is keenly interested in how the deadly Spanish flu rampaged around the globe almost a century ago.

As a person, she is moved by the profound human toll of the disease that caused as many as a third of the world's population to fall ill.

“An estimated 50 million to 100 million died,” she said, including her grandmother's sister.

When the fighting of World War I ended with the Armistice of 1918, many returning troops brought Spanish flu home with them.

By Oct. 24, 1918, Janesville's health official reported more than 600 flu cases across the city, more than double the cases of the previous week.

So many years later, the story of so much suffering is largely forgotten.

“The Spanish flu was a pandemic that happened in the shadow of this Great War,” Hachten said. “We see memorials all over the U.S., France and Britain to World War I. But there are no memorials to those who died from the Spanish flu.”

Hachten is assistant dean in the College of Letters and Sciences at UW-Whitewater.

She will discuss the impacts of World War I on health and medicine during a public talk next month.

The talk is one of 11 in UW-Whitewater's Fairhaven lecture series to commemorate the Great War.

“Many people think about the war as masses of men fighting and dying on several fronts,” Hachten said. “But the war also had an immense impact on civilian health and the understanding of disease.”

The war prompted the movement of millions in the military, where the virulent strain of flu emerged before infecting the general population.

“Mortality from the disease dwarfed mortality of death in war,” Hachten said. “In the American military, more men died from influenza than on the battlefield. There was no vaccine in 1918.”

Many of the public health measures taken at the time are things people would do today.

“They recommended that people not congregate in large crowds, and they closed schools to prevent rapid spread of the disease,” Hachten said.

The Janesville Daily Gazette reported that public meetings were banned, store hours reduced and theaters closed. In addition, red tags marked infected homes, and people wore masks in public.

In late October 1918, at least 769 people were sick in the city, which averaged 46 new cases a day.

“What was notable about this influenza is that young people ages 15 to 30 were particularly susceptible to dying,” Hachten said. “In the usual flu season, the elderly or very young are most susceptible.”

In addition to influenza, Hachten will talk about the emergence of a new kind of condition called shell shock. The term described people who had neurological conditions from the impact of exploding shells, including uncontrollable trembling, loss of memory and inability to concentrate.

“On the Western Front, about 60 percent of combat deaths were due to high explosive shells,” Hachten explained. “Shell shock really aligns with what we think of today as two conditions: traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The term also was used to describe troops who suffered emotional trauma.

“The connections with today are clear when we think of vets of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hachten said. “World War I is the first war where both PTSD and traumatic brain injury are studied, diagnosed and treated.”

But in 1918, many military and civilian doctors were unsympathetic to those suffering emotional trauma.

“They often were labeled cowardly,” Hachten said. “Many physicians in the British Army understood that emotional shell shock was a mental trauma that needed to be treated. But sometimes they were constrained by military superiors who were concerned about not having enough men to fight the war.”

As a result, doctors were reluctant to extend the label of a disability to people without physical wounds.

“The attitudes were nowhere near our current attitudes today,” Hachten said. “It is an important history for us to understand.”

 Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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