Richard Gordon on the Spanish Flu. How eerily prophetic?

Photos show the history of the deadly 1918 flu pandemic - Business ...
A poster in the US in 1918. Nothing much has changed.

One would have thought enough material has been published and continues to be written and released on the malady we are all obsessed with at the moment, to wit, Covid19, or the new Coronavirus. Clearly there is a palpable fatigue factor at play. Literally and metaphorically. How much more of this virus can we take editorially? That is a good question, but it does not stop the media pundits, be they spouting forth with the written or spoken word. Speaking for myself, I have not exactly been a slouch, having published around three lengthy pieces coming from different points of view on the dreaded subject. Enough is enough, methinks. I vowed to myself that I will spend more time reading books of varied hues by a plethora of authors. There is, after all, little else to do at Containmentville bar the occasional writing, listening to some elevating music and a couple of hours of cable TV. To which end, amongst other authorial worthies, I started reading a book by Richard Gordon titled Great Medical Disasters.

Now just in case there are those amongst you who are not familiar with the works of Richard Gordon, here’s a quick introduction. An Englishman, a medical doctor by profession, whose fame spread far and wide when he started writing humorous novels on his chosen profession – Medicine. Once the first book was out, and the public lapped it up, Gordon knew he was on to a good thing. He followed it up with a series of hilarious novels with titles like Doctor in the House, Doctor at Sea, Doctor in Love, Doctor in Clover, Doctor at Large and many more in similar vein. Thus, a little known practitioner of medicine became a world famous humourist with the medical profession his satirical and scintillating target. More success was to come by way of movies based on many of his novels starring such luminaries as Dirk Bogarde and James Robertson Justice. If the British movie industry during the 60s struck a rich vein of form and success, Richard Gordon’s medical novels can take much of the credit. The films at times bordered on slapstick, but the public lapped it up.

To revert to Great Medical Disasters, to my delight I found a second hand hardbound version reasonably priced on Amazon and wasted no time in placing the order. The book has been well thumbed, but in good condition. Fifty real life cases of almighty goof-ups that have occurred in the field of medicine over the centuries, featuring kings and queens, ministers both cabinet as well as clerical (parish), hotshots from the medical world and just plain tuppenny-ha’penny criminals. Failed diagnoses, botched up operations, botched up hangings, diseases we have come to know and love and many more. As ever, brilliantly recounted with a potent combination of deep medical insight and humour that Wodehouse, at times, might have envied.

The immediate provocation for this piece is my decision to reproduce one particular chapter from the book titled, Bitter Victory – Spanish Flu. Many of you would have heard and read about the Spanish Flu, particularly as a counterpoint to our present global quandary with Covid19. Considering Gordon wrote this piece several decades ago about a worldwide outbreak during the turn of the 20th century in his gently acerbic style, there is so much we can identify with concerning our present predicament. If for nothing else read it for his flair, and you may be tempted to try and obtain the book (if you’re lucky) and enjoy the complete oeuvre. So without further ado, here is Dr. Richard Gordon holding forth on the Spanish Flu. If I have infringed on any copyright laws, I proffer my apologies in advance. I am sure the estate of the late Dr. Richard Gordon will be glad of the free publicity with a good chance that several more copies of this estimable book might move off the shelves or more pertinently, online stores.

 (Footnotes and asterisks are entirely mine and not to be attributed to the author of the article).

Bitter victory. Spanish flu.                               

At the eleventh hour, the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the killing stopped. The world rejoiced, the gods laughed.

The Great War killed 8,538,313 military personnel, 12.5 per cent of the 65,038,810 mobilized. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 0.5 per cent of the entire population of the United States and of England, 3 per cent of Sierra Leone’s, 25 per cent of Samoa’s and 60 per cent of the Eskimos in Nome, Alaska. In six weeks it killed 3.1 per cent of US recruits at Camp Sherman. Five million died in India, often untidily – the corpses needed removing from overcrowded trains on arrival. Liners docked with 5 per cent fewer passengers than embarked.

The big American push on the Meuse-Argonne front was checked by 70,000 flu casualties. So was Ludendorff’s last fling on the Somme. Woodrow Wilson got it, also Lloyd George, Clemenceau, German prime minister Prince Max and Colonel House.

Nature is a more efficient murderer than man. The war needed four years, the flu barely one. It killed 25,000,000, 3 per cent of all cases, our worst plague. A fifth of the global population caught it, it left serological fingerprints on many more who nursed subclinical attacks.

Flu fatalities usually lie in infancy and senility. This epidemic mocked the war by slaughtering the 20-40 age group. Influenza was the tiger, pneumonia the jackal for its unkilled prey. Antibiotics lay as far ahead as Chancellor Hitler.

Where had it come from? The milder first wave started in US military camps during the spring of 1918, to be transported with the troops to France. Thence to Spain, where the fright was so violent the disease found its name. There was influenza that spring in China, and Chinese labourers mingled with men from everywhere crowded into Europe, coughing over each other.*

A deadlier wave broke in the autumn, perhaps starting at Ashkhabad in southern Russia, crossing the Iranian border for an outbreak at Mashhad, in the corner against Afghanistan. That August, HMS Africa had sailed from Sierra Leone, losing 7 per cent of her crew before reaching the Channel. Like a malign Puck, infection girdled the earth with simultaneous outbreaks in the ports of Freetown, Brest and Boston. In the US it killed more new immigrants from rural Italy, Russia, Austria and Poland than from crowded Britain and Germany.

As Boccaccio said of an earlier scourge, ‘How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfasted with their kinfolk and that same night supped with their ancestors in the other world.’ People eyed each other with keener suspicion than during the war’s spy scares. To sneeze was like drawing a knife.** ‘Coughing, Sneezing or Spitting Will not be Permitted in the Theatre,’ said the notices outside. ‘In case you must Cough or Sneeze, do so in your own handkerchief, and if the Coughing or Sneezing Persists Leave the Theatre At Once. Go Home and Go to Bed until You Are Well. If you have a cold or are coughing and sneezing Do Not Enter This Theatre.’

Hospitals had patients in the corridors. Thousands were inoculated with useless anti-flu vaccine. Schools and libraries were closed. Men were advised to stop shaves in barbershops. Everyone was advised to wear fresh pyjamas, avoid shaking hands, take castor oil. The world wore white cotton masks, like surgeons’.  In San Francisco they were obligatory, on pain of gaol (the police complained they encouraged robbery).

Soldiers prudently dug graves for which there were not yet bodies. There was profiteering in coffins. The Washington DC health commissioner commandeered two railroad cars full of them, which a railwayman tipped him off to be lying in the Potomac freight yards. He stacked them under police guard, coffin theft being the crime of the moment.

The visitation lingered everywhere about six weeks. A less lethal wave came with 1919. By the spring, the flu had gone. Where? Perhaps into swine.

It could come back.

*The Chinese were at it even then.

** Ring a bell?

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. A dazzling presentation….on an acute sensitive topic…..surfing the contours of satirism….but weaving away from sarcasm……with shades of hilariousness….a balancing act….well done !……nice reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That poster said it all . What goes around comes around. I didn’t know that someone could do a Wodehouse on maladies. Your blog may have ‘ Influenced’ many to lay their hands on that book.

    Liked by 1 person

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