Marjorie “Marge” Van Galder skipped around the Janesville railroad depot smiling and talking to people on a lovely autumn day in 1918.
As the vibrant child waited with her mother for her Aunt Abby to arrive on a train, a woman offered Marge a piece of candy.
Before 5-year-old Marge could put the candy in her mouth, she crumpled to the floor.
Marge’s mom rushed to the child’s side, cleaned her hot face with a hankie and lifted her onto a wooden bench.
When the train arrived, Marge’s mom asked Abby to return home because young Marge—like so many in Janesville—had fallen ill to influenza.
Abby insisted on helping.
The doctor who treated Marge advised her mother to pray.
This year’s flu season is more serious and widespread than in recent years.
But almost a century ago, residents of Rock County faced a rampant killer in the form of a particularly deadly influenza. People could be healthy in the morning and dead by evening.
The misnamed Spanish flu was a strain of virus unlike anything anyone had ever seen, and it turned the whole world into a killing zone.
Historical sources say the disease claimed 675,000 people in the United States, the worst epidemic in U.S. history.
Around the world, estimated influenza deaths ranged up to 50 million, according to the National Archives and Records Administration.
Janesville not spared
During a terrifying October of 1918, influenza hit hardest in Janesville.
In just three weeks, doctors confirmed more than 750 cases in the city of about 20,000, the Janesville Daily Gazette reported.
On Oct. 9, Health Officer S.B. Buckmaster ordered all public places, including dance halls, theaters, schools and churches, closed to prevent rapid spread of the disease.
The order came in a rare newspaper notice on the front page, normally packed with World War I news from Europe.
The health officer also urged citizens to obey a state law against spitting on sidewalks and in public places.
A newspaper ad tried to calm worried residents by saying that Spanish influenza was nothing new, simply “the old grip,” and victims should “go to bed, stay quiet and take a laxative.”
Things took a turn for the worse when more than 100 men from Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, became sick while on furlough in Janesville. They sought shelter at the YMCA, where 39 slept in the lobby and others on billiard tables and benches because there were not enough beds.
By mid-October, the health officer was home with the flu, and all of the city’s doctors and nurses “are working night and day.” At one point, the city called for more nurses from Madison and Milwaukee.
For 25 cents, Smith’s Pharmacy in Janesville sold Smith’s Cold Tablets and called them “a guard against influenza.”
Some people wore sacks of camphor around their necks to ward off disease. Others preferred garlic bags. Two young women on their way to work were featured in the newspaper because they wore gauze masks in public.
Unfortunately, such anti-flu methods offered no protection against viruses, which were still mostly unknown by the medical community.
By Oct. 25, doctors said new cases of flu were still increasing, especially in rural areas of Rock County. The local health officer implored people who had lost loved ones to keep the services small so large numbers would not gather.
The newspaper reported that “local physicians are being taxed to the limit of their endurance.” Still, doctors insisted “there is no cause for the public to become alarmed.”
By the end of October, reports of new cases of flu dipped dramatically, and a headline in the newspaper read: “The Crisis Has Passed.”
Theaters, churches and schools re-opened in early November.
Young Marge recovers
Marge Van Galder survived the flu, but her Aunt Abby did not.
Abby, who helped care for Marge, became ill as the child recovered.
Many years later, Marge wrote about Abby in her 1994 book, “Growing Up In Monterey Back When.”
“Dear Aunt Abby—who was so determined to help others—was gone,” Marge wrote, painfully.
Two weeks after Abby’s death, Marge’s family celebrated the signing of the World War I Armistice.
They gathered with thousands of others Nov. 12 at the Five Points in Janesville, where they cheered and waved flags.
Sadly, in the American military, more men died from influenza than on the battlefield.
Marge, who lived a long life, died in 2000.
For her, like so many others, the flu of 1918 was defined by the terrible loss of a loved one or loved ones.
Lessons for today
Brenda Klahn of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville is optimistic the flu pandemic of 1918 will not repeat itself.
“You never say never,” the infection control specialist said. “But we know so much more today. Part of the reason it was so deadly in 1918 is because doctors could only treat patient symptoms. They did not have vaccines or anti-viral drugs.”
One of the lessons to be learned from the 1918 epidemic is that influenza is a serious disease, Klahn said.
“Even though we have better methods of treating it and preventing it, it can kill people,” she explained. “Two years ago, I had a co-worker whose husband almost died from it.”
Klahn urged people to be vaccinated.
“A lot of people say they have never gotten sick, so they don’t need the flu shot,” she said. “But it is a vaccine-preventable disease, even though the vaccine is not 100 percent effective every year.”
In Janesville, the number of influenza cases has been high since before Christmas.
“We haven’t seen them slow down yet,” Klahn said. “It’s something people shouldn’t take lightly.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.