There were no antibiotics to cure complications. There were no vaccines to prevent it and no Tamiflu to relieve the symptoms. There was only the disease. And then, there was death.
The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 ravaged the country, the state of Maryland and Montgomery County like nothing before or since. Schools closed for weeks at a time that fall and winter, and the newspapers were full of obituaries for victims who died too young and too soon. Only funeral homes and undertakers benefited from the disease that seemingly came out of nowhere, decimated the population, then ran its course into history.
If the number of deaths from the flu and its complications seems relatively small—roughly a hundred within three or four months, though the precise number isn’t known—consider that there were just under 35,000 people living here in 1920, compared with the current population of about 950,000. One hundred deaths in a population of 35,000 would translate into 2,714 deaths in a population resembling Montgomery County’s today. In all, an estimated 675,000 Americans succumbed to the flu and its complications. The global death toll is estimated to have been as high as 100 million, with one-third of the world’s population infected.
Early on, a large number of deaths in Spain gave the disease its geographical name, but the so-called Spanish flu is believed to have surfaced first in Kansas in the spring of 1918, then spread to U.S. military camps. After that early and moderately mild first wave, the influenza virus resurfaced in the fall. It was, according to infectious disease experts, a strain far more deadly than this year’s.
In mid-October 1918, there were an estimated 1,200 cases in the county, “with the number daily increasing,” Rockville’s Sentinel reported. The true number would never be known.
On Oct. 18, the paper said the flu was “still raging over the entire county without any signs of abatement. The death rate continues high and the number of new cases reported daily is increasing.… Dr. Linthicum, of this town [Rockville], informs us that on Tuesday last he prescribed for 95 affected persons, a number which is much larger than that of any preceding day during the time of this alarming disease.”
Not surprisingly, local doctors were not immune. Dr. William T. Pratt, the county health officer, fell ill but survived, as did Dr. Jacob Wheeler Bird of Sandy Spring, who went on to found Montgomery General Hospital in Olney in 1920. Doctors Carlton N. Etchison, 32, of Gaithersburg, and Clifton N. DeVibliss, 33, of Laytonsville, weren’t so lucky. The Sentinel memorialized Etchison as “one of Montgomery’s most popular young physicians,” who “worked unceasingly and untiringly, night and day, until he was stricken with the disease.” Medicine, however, failed them both.
Rockville then, as now, was the seat of county government, but it was also a commercial and population center and the dateline for all Montgomery County stories about the virus that appeared in The Washington Post. Almost invariably, the sick died not from the flu itself but “from pneumonia following the influenza,” as many obits noted. Helpless without the “miracle drugs” that would become commonplace only decades later, most of the sick didn’t linger long—a few days or a week.
In a bid to limit the spread of the flu, the Sentinel published advice from the United States Public Health Service. “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases,” the newspaper cautioned in a picture caption, calling the flu “as dangerous as poison gas shells” then exploding over war-torn Europe.
Death from the flu or its complications knew no class or social boundaries. It came for a county commissioner, a state senator and an Olney family whose two children were left orphaned by the deaths of their parents, both in their 20s.