Today’s Overflowing Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
As the 1918 flu epidemic began to ravage American troops at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, the U.S. Surgeon General sent one of the nation’s leading doctors, Dr. William Henry Welch, along with three other doctors, to the camp to figure out what was going on. They arrived on September 24, on a dreary morning when frigid rain was falling and dying soldiers, sodden and chilled, were filing into the hospital, carrying their blankets, burning with fever, shivering with cold, and coughing up bloody mucous.
What the doctors saw horrified them. The camp, built for 35,000 men, was overcrowded with 45,000. And the influenza epidemic was running rampant. In just twenty-four hours preceding Welch’s visit, 66 men had died. The day that Welch and his retinue came, 63 died. The hospital, built to hold 2,000, was overflowing with 8,000 men.
Colonel Vincent C. Vaughn, one of the doctors, wrote about the experience. He was a man who had seen epidemics before. He had seen typhoid fever and seen firsthand how that illness felled men in the Spanish-American War. But never had he seen anything like the influenza epidemic in Fort Devens, Massachusetts.
When Vaughn remembered For Devens, this is what he saw: “… hundreds of stalwart young men in the uniform of their country coming into the wards of the hospital in groups of ten or more. They are placed on the cots until every bed is full yet others crowd in. Their faces soon wear a bluish cast; a distressing cough brings up the blood stained sputum. In the morning the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cord wood.”
The others, too, were traumatized. Dr. Rufus Cole was stunned by the hospital scene. As the men stumbled into the sick ward, “there were not enough nurses and the poor boys were putting themselves to bed on cots, which overflowed out of the wards on the porches,” Cole said.
And then there was the autopsy room. It was hard to even get in, with stiff bodies piling up, blocking the doctors’ way. “Owing to the rush and the great number of bodies coming into the morgue, they were placed on the floor without any order or system, and we had to step amongst them to get into the room where an autopsy was going on, “Cole said.
But once they got there, even Welch, the imperturbable, the one the others looked to for courage and strength, was shaken. Somehow that was the worst of all.
Standing over the autopsy table, Welch opened the chest of the corpse of a young man, exposing his lungs. It was a terrible sight. “When the chest was opened and the blue swollen lungs were removed and opened, and Dr. Welch saw the wet foamy surfaces with little real consolidation, he turned,” Cole said. “This must be some new kind of infection,” Welch said. “Or plague.”
By that time, the flu had spread beyond Fort Devens, beyond Boston, beyond the military. The entire state of Massachusetts was staggering from the virus.
The Face Of Madness: Crushworthy Edition
In The Library Eclectica (the astore of which has been removed, but I will be restoring a version of it online soon), I have a book entitled The Faces of Madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the Origin of Psychiatric Photography (edited by Sander L. Gilman), 1977. It contains a wonderful collection of photographs of asylum inmates taken in the 1850’s by pioneering medical photographer and psychiatrist Dr. Hugh W. Diamond, along with engravings that were made of them and used in teaching. There are also several case studies by Dr. John Conolly (the leading British psychiatrist of the mid-nineteenth century) for some of the patients. The portraits are beautiful and sad and the text reveals the psychiatric thought processes of the mid-19th century.
You know that song, “Pictures of Lily” where Pete Townshend gets a crush on a photo of a pin-up girl that had been dead since 1929? This is kind of my Picture Of Lily. Something about this woman is just so gorgeous to me. For one thing, her hair looks modern and hip, her skeptical expression appeals to my innate cynicism, and her dirty hands show that she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. That combo = sexy! Of course, I think I’m probably alone in my crush, but that’s okay.
Anyway, here’s what the book says about her:
… in the present instance the patient, after being insane some months, and then falling into utter despondency, and continuing in that state for a month, was in a transition state towards mania. Her story is but one in a larger chapter of such which London furnishes. She gained a small livelihood by the occupation of a sorter and folder of paper, and lived but poorly. After a confinement she had an attack of puerperal mania, lasting about six months; her conversation was generally incoherent, and her actions were sometimes impulsive and violent. She repudiated her infant, declaring that it did not belong to her, and on one occasion she leaped out of a window fourteen feet from the ground. About a month after being received into the Surrey Asylum the excitement left her, and great despondency supervened. She then sat all day in one position, or else stood up covering her face with her hands. She never employed herself, and would not reply when spoken to. For many months she remained in this state, and then what at first appeared to be recovery took place, and her faculties seemed to revive. The melancholia, however, soon returned, and continued six months more. Then, a sudden renewal of bodily and mental energy occurred, and she became maniacal; began to dress herself fantastically, sung songs, and indulged in various ideas connected with wealth and pleasure, in which state she at present remains. The photograph, taken when the state of melancholy was passing into that of excitement, retains something of the fixedness of attitude and expression in the first state; as in the arms held close to the body, and the position of the lower extremities, and in the downward tension of the cheek. The body is thin, and the hair is lank and heavy. But the eyes are not lost in vacancy; they seem to discern some person or object which excites displeasure or suspicion. The forehead is wrinkled with some strong emotion, and the eyebrows, although corrugated, have not the tense contraction towards the nose which is observable in many cases of melancholia. The lips are not drawn down at the angles, but, although well shaped, are somewhat compressed, and the lower jaw indicates some half-formed determination. The maniacal condition of this patient has been accompanied with such an increase of stoutness that subsequent photographs are scarcely to be recognized as being likenesses of the same patient. Her face has become broad; the angles of the mouth are a little drawn up, giving it an expression of merriment; her forehead is smooth, the hair is well-arranged, and the eyes and eyebrows are significant of animated observation, whilst the whole attitude is perfectly free from constraint.