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Where had all the Nurses Gone: The Spanish Influenze Epidemic of 1918


Image courtesy of TheHistoryCD.com 

Background legend

When the Spanish Influenza epidemic invaded Rochester in the fall of 1918, the community was paralyzed.  Military demands of World War I had steadily drained the area of trained nurses. Actions taken by health care leaders show how fully the community had come to depend on professional nurses in the few decades since the 1880 opening of the city’s first nurse training school at Rochester City Hospital. 

In the month and a half it raged, the epidemic prostrated nearly 13,000 Rochesterians, at its peak killing thirty to forty victims a day.  Unlike other epidemics which had been deadliest among infants and the elderly, this one preyed mostly on people between the ages of 18 and 40.  As many as 800 a day collapsed with chills and fever.  They were parents and teachers on whom Rochester’s children depended and the workforce on whom Rochester’s businesses and factories relied.  Without nursing care the fabric of a vibrant and robust community threatened to unravel.


Image courtesy of TheHistoryCD.com

Even before the United States entered the war young women volunteered to serve as nurses in England and France.  Prompted by their commitment to caring for the wounded and sick, made confident by their excellent training, and attracted by recruitment posters like the one above, more than 100 graduates of Rochester’s nurse training schools volunteered for foreign service.   Only young, physically able, single women who enrolled as Red Cross nurses were accepted for overseas duty. 


From the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection,
Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY 

Rising national spirit prompted leaders in major cities to organize gigantic “preparedness” parades in anticipation of the War.  A large contingent of graduate nurses, wearing white dresses and identical caps to signify their unity, marched behind army and navy units in Rochester’s Preparedness Parade on June 10, 1916.  Many of these women would answer their country’s call in the next few months, reducing hospitals’ supervisory nursing staffs by half. 


Photo courtesy of the Local History Division, Rochester Public Library.

After the U. S. entered the War in April 1917 the need for trained nurses to serve in stateside army camps further depleted Rochester’s nursing resources.  To balance quotas established by the War Department, the Red Cross established a course in home nursing, where women relearned the sick room skills their mothers and grandmothers had practiced, but which had been taken over by the members of the relatively new profession, registered nurses.     


Image courtesy of TheHistoryCD.com

By spring 1918, recruitment of nurse trainees to fill the void had become a priority.   Campaigns appealed to high school and college graduates’ patriotic spirit, their desire to make a significant contribution, and their hope for financial independence when the War was over.  The country’s first student nurse reserve program was established at the Army School of Nursing in Washington.  And accelerated programs, like the 12-week camp for college graduates at Vassar and Hahnemann (Highland) Hospital’s 13-week summer school, shortened the traditional three-year training period.  Students who stayed the course and passed the tests would become Registered Nurses, could fill hospital and community nursing vacancies, and might earn comfortable livelihoods at the War’s end. 


Photo from the Polish Community Archives at St. Stanislaus Parish,
 Courtesy of Mrs. Leon Lustyk.

While the United States Red Cross accepted only nurses formally trained at accredited schools, other embattled nations welcomed any women who could alleviate the suffering of civilians and servicemen.  In the spring of 1918 a group of young Polish women entered a special course conducted by Dr. Marcena Sherman Ricker, a graduate of Rochester City (Rochester General) Hospital’s first training school class.  Sponsored by the YWCA, the Grey Samaritans, named for their uniforms, underwent practical training at Homeophathic (Genesee) Hospital and at Columbia University in New York City, after which they embarked for Poland under the auspices of the American Relief Administration.


Photo courtesy of the Local History Division, Rochester Public Library.

In June, Red Cross teams conducted a week-long registration drive to identify the more than 800 graduate nurses who lived in Monroe County.  Private and industrial nurses were urged to volunteer for duty in army cantonments. Those who had given up nursing to get married or were otherwise unable to stand the rigors of military duty were recruited for the Home Nursing Corps to serve a few hours each week in clinics, dispensaries, diet kitchens, and schools.  Newspapers pressured citizens to limit the private nursing services they had become accustomed to:

It may well be called destructive civic and national selfishness for those people who can afford to do so to retain a nurse...simply because they find her services or companionship pleasant when there is no real need.” 


Photo courtesy of the Local History Division, Rochester Public Library.

Meanwhile, nursing students in Rochester's various hospital training schools took over tasks formerly performed by nursing supervisors.  Seniors taught practical skills to probationers and first-year students.  Only a skeleton staff of graduate nurses remained to teach the academic subjects: anatomy, physiology, chemistry, bacteriology, hygiene, sanitation, dietetics, and preparation of drugs and solutions. But when the Spanish influenza epidemic hit at the end of September 1918, young student nurses, like those in this Homeopathic (The Genessee) Hospital class, were most vulnerable.  Hospital beds quickly filled with the young women trained to help make others well.


From the Albert R. Stone Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY

When there were no more hospital beds, an appeal went out for volunteers to help the sick.   They delivered soup to the less severe cases, as pictured here.  Newspapers dramatized other situations:

“Night and day emergency aids — man and woman volunteer nurses — come and go from the Red Cross House.  More than a thousand of them have been on duty during the last week....Some of these nurses have remained on cases continuously for three or four days; some have gone into homes where the conditions were such that it was an imposition to ask any person to stay there even for an hour.  They have nursed the sick, cared for children, prepared food for the sick and for children, washed dishes, and cleaned up the house generally.”  

Some volunteers entered hovels where toilet facilities did not function, or which had no plumbing at all.  One counted six patients in a single bed; another found fourteen desperately ill people in a “filthy” house.  Unsanitary conditions made treating residents in some homes fruitless.

In mid October, when 400 to 600 new cases appeared each day, the city closed down; schools, stores, factories, theaters, taverns, and even churches were ordered to suspend all activities.  The Red Cross and Health Bureau began to equip satellite infirmaries in the empty meeting halls, and a home was opened for children found in appalling conditions.  In one home

“The father and mother were both powerless to do anything because of the force with which influenza had seized them.  Their two little children, 5 and 7 years old, could not be cared for.  Although there was plenty of coal in the house there was no one to build a fire.”

Trained nurses supervised the satellite hospitals.  Volunteers, including men from the New York State National Guard, staffed them.  


From the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum and Science Center, Rochester, NY

 The city finally reopened on November 5, 1918. Thousands of persons deserved praise for their heroism, dedication, and generous spirit.  The finest tribute, however, was given by the nurses who had managed the satellite hospitals.  “Remember,” they said, “under whom we received our training.”  They were referring to Miss Sophia Palmer whose national and local leadership during the war years was outstanding.  To her earlier credentials – Superintendent of Rochester City Hospital, leader in the campaign for nursing registration, founder and editor of the American Journal of Nursing – Miss Palmer added the following credits:

  • Service on the National Committee on  the Nursing Services of the American Red Cross.

  • Chair of Rochester’s General Nursing Service Committee.

  • Chair of Rochester’s Student Nurse Reserve Committee.

  • Director of the Corps of Inspectors who visited volunteer nurses during the epidemic.

  • Organizer of instruction classes for foreign service nursing aids. 

Credits

Research and Text: Teresa K. Lehr

Based on newspaper articles in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

A special thanks to:

The Local History Division of the Rochester Public Library

The Polish Community Archives, St. Stanislaus Parish

The Rochester Museum and Science Center, Albert R. Stone Collection

Web design: Susan Maples