Fort Ontario - U.S.A. General Hospital #5

During World War I Fort Ontario was converted from an infantry post to U.S.A. General Hospital #5, where approximately 12,000 soldiers and civilians were treated for wounds and disease. As it did elsewhere in the country, the flu struck Fort Ontario and Oswego hard from August through November, with October 1918 being the deadliest month in American history.

Editor's note: Below is the first entry in a Palladium-Times exclusive four-part series on how Oswego has fought an insidious viral foe before — and won. Through research and meticulous combing of historical records, reporter Jeremy Houghtaling pieces together the local voices reaching across more than a century.

OSWEGO —With the spread of COVID-19 across the globe, advice from medical professionals today has strong parallels to guidance given more than 100 years ago during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Sanitize your hands or wash them frequently with soap and water for 20 or more seconds. Avoid contact with people who are sick, stay home as much as possible, cough or sneeze into tissues or sleeves, and avoid touching the eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

These largely common sense solutions, separated by a century, are the best everyday defense against a virus.

Unfortunately, we are no more immune to the spread of misinformation and disinformation today than the Oswego populous was back then — a contagion nearly as dangerous as the disease itself.

Whether people can self-diagnose by holding their breath or ward off the virus by sipping water every 15 minutes, a health crisis will always yield those peddling magic cures and hope for the hopeless.

The “Spanish flu” peaked in Oswego in October 1918 and editions of the Oswego Daily Palladium show a much different society trying to find solutions to stop the virus’ spread. Some directives still apply today, while others may raise some eyebrows.

An Oct. 10 edition of The Palladium focused on how to recognize the symptoms. To wit: “Ordinarily the fever lasts from three to four days and the patient recovers. But while the proportion of deaths in the present epidemic has generally been low, in some places the outbreak has been severe and deaths have been numerous. When death occurs it is usually the result of a complication.”

The same article said one could guard against the influenza by keeping the body strong and able to fight off germs.

“This can be done by having a proper proportion of work, play, and rest, by keeping the body well clothed, and by eating sufficient, wholesome, and properly elected food. In connection with diet, it is well to remember that milk is one of the best all-around food obtainable for adults as well as children.”

Reports from 1918 also warn about overcrowding and “it also follows that one should keep out of crowds and stuffy places as much as possible, keep homes, offices and workshops well aired, spend some time out of doors each day, walk to work if at all practicable — in short, make every possible effort to breathe as much pure air as possible.”

Two days later on Oct. 12, a brief on “How to keep from getting sick” was published. Citing a formula used by the military physicians at Camp Dix and “used with success at one of the big industrial plants in this city”: “In one quart of warm water dissolve 1 teaspoonful of salt thoroughly, add 2 1/2 teaspoonfuls of tincture of iodine, gargle two or three times a day.

“Also, make a swab of cotton (toothpick and absorbent cotton) and use in the nostrils three times a day.”

The Oct. 14 edition claimed people stormed Auburn’s City Hall looking for whiskey stored there.

“Whiskey in fair doses is considered by some doctors, it is said, a good antidote for Spanish influenza, and according to information from Syracuse today, is being administered to sick soldiers there three times a day. It is declared by those who believe this treatment effective that a ‘stiff horn of whiskey’ will go farther toward warding off the disease in its early stages than anything else.”

The Spanish flu mortality gradually slowed after October 1918. If a Des Moines doctor cited in a Dec. 17 Palladium edition is to be believed, it could have been because of changing attitudes.

“There is no question that by a right attitude of mind these people have kept themselves from illness. I have no doubt that many persons contracted the disease through fear,” the doctor is quoted as saying. “People can deceive themselves into thinking they have any disease on the calendar, and doubtless many of them have thought themselves into their graves.”

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