The 1918 influenza pandemic first erupted in France during World War I, having migrated from birds to pigs housed in factory-type farms and then to soldiers. It ravaged soldiers on army bases across the U.S. The most acutely affected segment of the population at that time was between 20 and 40 years old, probably because older adults had immunity from exposure to a flu in 1889. The final death toll in the U.S. was more than 500,000.
Engineering News, a leading engineering magazine of its day, had merged with its rival Engineering Record in April of 1917. The publication, renamed Engineering News-Record, in a 1919 article chronicled the rigorous practices used on site during the expansion of Camp Custer, an army base outside Battle Creek, Mich. “Men having the handling of food in any way had to bathe twice a week, to brush their teeth daily and to wash their hands frequently. Discharge followed refusal to comply with rules … or refusal to change frequently to clean clothing.”
Bunkhouse caretakers aired out the buildings every day, and all bedding was hung outside daily. “Cots, ﬂoors and wall surfaces were sprayed daily with 5% lysol solution. Floors were swept morning and afternoon and scrubbed at least twice a week.” Kerosene and chlorinated lime were applied to urinals and privies. Garbage was collected twice daily and burned.
The results were impressive: “During the height of the inﬂuenza epidemic last autumn the construction force building the extension to Camp Custer suffered no diminution on account of disease. Instead, the superior reputation for healthfulness of the camp led to an increase of 50% in the applications for work. Construction progress was maintained at scheduled speed while on neighboring jobs work lagged because of workmen lost through disease and desertion, and communities all about had closed theaters, schools and churches and were conducting all business under quarantine restrictions.”
The article was written by M.D. Kauffman, who was division engineer in charge of sanitation. He concluded, “Success in sanitary service at Camp Custer came from attention to detail. No unusual hygienic or sanitary measure was employed; also, no essential hygienic precaution was neglected, and no carelessness in its execution was permitted which vigilant inspection could prevent.”
The workforce peaked at 2,572, with only four cases of influenza and one case of pneumonia. W. E. Wood Co. of Detroit was the general contractor.
Another article in 1919 presented large bar graphs that tracked the virus’ spread as it rampaged through 14 major Army bases, from Fort Devens in Massachusetts to Camp Funston in Kansas. It was written by George A. Soper, a major in the Army’s sanitary corps. “Early in the pandemic an attempt was made to establish a curve which would represent a typical epidemic in the average camp. It was thought that if this could be prepared it would be useful in foretelling the probable course of an epidemic in a given place.” The effort seems a precursor to the graphics used today to show how it could be possible to “flatten the curve” on the spread of COVID-19 to avoid overwhelming hospitals. One finding was that tent camps were less affected by influenza than barracks camps.
An editorial with the headline, “Reflections on the Epidemic” foreshadowed many of the challenges we face today. After detailing a half-dozen diseases that “have been well-nigh eliminated among progressive peoples,” it pivoted. “Heretofore people have been slow to accept and act upon the simple fact that ‘colds,’ influenza and pneumonia are rapidly passed from person to person by airborne germs.” It mentioned measures taken such as “some degree of isolation” having been instituted, and added that “widespread efforts have been made to lessen crowding on transportation routes and in places of public assembly.”
It concluded, “In the midst of an epidemic like the present the people must submit to dramatic interferences with personal habits and liberties for their own and the common good.”