As part of a lawsuit weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Do you have a question about the history of Anchorage or an idea for a future article? Access the form at the bottom of this story.
On November 29, 1918, a Friday, Anchorage resident Mary Gold died of pneumonia, another victim of the Spanish flu. His death shocked the residents. Ben Gold, her husband, was the prominent owner of a fourth avenue dry goods store. And Mary was one of the most visible volunteers at the hospital. The previous Sunday, she was “doing fine and doing everything she could to help people with the flu,” according to the Anchorage Daily Times. She fell ill that night, was admitted to hospital the next day and quickly deteriorated, “despite all that could be done for her by human effort”. The following April, Ben sold the business and permanently abandoned Anchorage with their two daughters.
The Spanish flu pandemic, or Spanish flu, from 1918 to 1919 was confirmed in Alaska in October 1918, later than most of the lower 48 regions. Mortality rates in Alaska varied widely from city to city or village to village, much less from region to region. . In parts of Alaska, such as much of the Seward Peninsula, mortality rates were as high as 90-100%. Estimates of deaths from Spanish influenza in Alaska range from 1,100 to 2,000, although these estimates are most likely conservative due to poor documentation.
November 1918 was the peak of the Spanish flu in Alaska, a grim conclusion to what was a particularly tragic year for the territory. Besides the pandemic, as difficult as it may be, the First World War did not end until November 11. Alaskans died in this war, including John “Jack” Henry of Anchorage, namesake of the first local post of the American Legion. And on October 25, the liner SS Princess Sophia sank near Juneau. All aboard died, more than 300 crew members and passengers, the deadliest maritime accident in Alaska’s history.
In Anchorage, the pandemic has had many short and long-term effects. One was the delay in burials. First, there could not have been a public funeral because of the local quarantine imposed for most of November 1918. Second, one of the local entrepreneurs, Helmer Wickberg, himself died from the Spanish flu. Ed Walker, possibly the first local death, died on November 3 but was not buried until November 17.
Likewise, the Anchorage quarantine order also closed all religious services. Not all residents agreed with this action. The Anchorage Christian Science Society paid The Times to reprint a long editorial from the Christian Science Monitor. Said the author: “The church that closes its doors practically proclaims its helplessness, and admission is terrible when it is done at the time of a nation’s needs.” A service in memory of all local victims of the pandemic was held in the Presbyterian church on December 15, 1918.
The quarantine also had an impact on the elections of November 1918. Political rallies and meetings were prohibited with all other public rallies. As expected, turnout was low, with an estimate of “100 qualified voters” kept away from the polling stations in Anchorage.
Across Alaska, police and marshals patrolled the city streets, dispersing rallies. James Wickersham, the former and future Alaska Congressman, attended one of these illegal meetings in Juneau. However, he was relieved after it closed. That evening, he learned that the virus had killed a friend in Ketchikan. The Wickersham newspaper entry for the day concludes: “I’m afraid of the flu! “
Nationally and in the long term, Spanish flu has also increased the credibility and professional recognition of nurses. Without vaccines and antibiotics, doctors counted relatively little for the outcome. The nurses treated the symptoms and facilitated the patient experience.
Doctors in Anchorage downplayed the importance of Spanish flu in the crisis itself. “Don’t worry about the flu in Anchorage,” said local doctors. “There is none and what appears to be just an ordinary and common flu every day. The nurses were, according to the Times, “people who quietly and unpretentiously served good Samaritans during the flu epidemic and who are completely satisfied to know that they did everything in their power to relieve the afflicted “.
Thus, the death of Mary Gold was a small tragedy in the midst of a larger one, as she was one of the few people willing and able to help the sick. Other nurses and volunteers in Anchorage fell ill from their exposure, although Mary is the only one known to have died.
The Spanish flu pandemic has provided something of a basis for a better Alaska, or at least an Alaska better prepared for the next public health disaster. In 1919, the first health commissioner was appointed, albeit part-time and without pay until 1923. Many communities established health boards at that time. Some of the resulting restrictions seem familiar, such as a Ketchikan regulation which required an empty stool between restaurant patrons. Postmen at Fairbanks fumigated the mail.
In Anchorage, the creation of a local health council at the end of October 1918 enabled authorities to enforce the “seat of the flu” that followed. And that paved the way for responding to subsequent crises. Acting not as mayor but as chairman of the Anchorage Health Council, Oscar Gill decisively decided on a strict quarantine on January 13, 1936, which reduced the deaths of the children of Anchorage during a scarlet fever epidemic. Restrictions on public gatherings would also be applied in the local epidemics of diphtheria and polio in 1946 and 1954 respectively.
Anchorage Daily Times, 1918 to 1919.
Gill, Oscar S. “Quarantine Notice”. Anchorage Daily Times, January 13, 1936, 3.
Lautaret, Ronald L. “The greatest disaster in Alaska”. In The Alaska Journal 1986: History and Arts of the North, vol. 16, edited by Terrence Cole, 238-243. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, 1986.
Mamelund, Svenn-Erik, Lisa Sattenspiel and Jessica Dimka. “Mortality associated with influenza during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic in Alaska and Labrador: comparison.” History of the social sciences 37, no. 2 (2013): 177-229.
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