THE 1918 FLU EPIDEMIC by Ray Search (written by Walt Sehnert)

In 1918 the United States was engaged in the “Great War” or “The War to End All Wars”. Many families in McCook as in the rest of the nation had boys fighting in France. And, as is the nature of war, there were telegrams to families announcing the news that a loved one had been killed, wounded, or missing in action. At the same time there was a killer at large which was responsible for many times the number of deaths which were caused by the war in Europe. This was the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918.


Today we know more about the treatment of “The Flu”, and have a limited success in preventing the disease through the use of preventative shots. In 1918 the flu was rampant. The origin of the disease is unclear, but at least partly because of the war and the close proximity of fighting men from many countries, spread throughout Europe and later to North and South America. Before the epidemic was officially declared over, the flu, with its attendant complications of pneumonia and sinus infections, had claimed some 20,000,000 lives, worldwide.


Though the disease was certainly more widespread on the eastern coast of the United States, McCook was not immune to the disease. Indeed, at the height of the epidemic McCook’s small hospitals, one on Norris Ave., now occupied by Reed Realty, and one, operated by Dr. Reed at 1002 W. 1st St., were filled with patients. In addition many homes, where a household member had the flu, were pressed into service as temporary hospitals, to house neighbors who had come down with the disease. The idea was to quarantine just the flu patients and allow other family members to go about in a semblance of normality. The doctors, Reed, Swigert, and Kay, worked day and night visiting their patients. Nurses, and practical nurses were pressed into service tending the sick. McCook was virtually shut down, no school, no church services, no shows. Parents kept their children indoors as much as possible. Mothers even put a stop to the neighborhood ball games.


Ray Search’s mother was a practical nurse of long standing. She was a midwife of some repute and had delivered babies in McCook and in the country for some years. So, of course, she was extremely busy during this trying time, tending patients, and making her special healing remedy, Chicken or Pigeon soup.


Ray, himself, eventually came down with the flu. To spare the rest of the family, and to allow that his mother could keep working with flu victims, he was taken to the home at 810 W. 1st St. where there were already 4 adults and 2 children with the flu. He recalls the rather unsettling sight of Mr. Pade’s horse-drawn hearse passing by almost every day on the way to the cemetery. There was a glass window on the side of the hearse and the coffin was clearly visible, leaving Ray to speculate as to the identity of the occupant.


Other than chicken soup there was not much medicine, which could be used. Ray was confined to bed, urged to take plenty of liquids, but no solid food. His condition rapidly deteriorated and turned into pneumonia. Even at that time Ray thought that the treatment he got was quite strange. The medicine of choice was a hot onion poultice on the chest. To prepare the poultice the onions were sliced and heated in the skillet until very hot, not unlike the preparations of fried onions for the table. This treatment went on for several days, during which time his condition improved, along with his appetite. His food was still restricted, even though he pleaded for something more to eat. Finally, one day, when they came in to change Ray’s poultice, they found that he had eaten the onions. That was when they decided he was well enough to go home. The roast beef dinner, with mashed potatoes and gravy, which Ray’s mother used to greet him, was the best meal of his life.