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1918 pandemic had huge impact on Schenectady

1918 pandemic had huge impact on Schenectady

1918 pandemic had huge impact on Schenectady
Members of the American Red Cross treat people suffering from the "Spanish Flu" during the 1918 pandemic.
Photographer: Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Dr. James Strosberg has spent countless hours in area libraries researching various medical emergencies in Schenectady's long history, in particular the 1918 Spanish Flu. Then on March 12 of this year, Strosberg suddenly found himself on the front lines of his own pandemic.

“I was volunteering at the County Health Department when this whole thing started,” said Strosberg, referring to the current COVID-19 crisis. “We got the first positive case at the Union College banquet and we immediately started calling people up and telling them to go into quarantine.

The death toll in Schenectady County due to COVID-19 has been relatively small -- 39 people have died in the county in the three months since the outbreak began. But in 1918, the death toll was substantially higher for the Spanish Flu, as nearly 500 county residents died over a six-week period. The impact was felt everywhere, as 675,000 Americans succumbed to the disease and an estimated 50 million people died worldwide. Despite the disparity in the death toll, there are similarities between the two outbreaks, according to Strosberg, a retired physician who grew up in Troy and graduated from Union College and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine.

"The Public Health Department advised people to quarantine, and it worked back then and it works now," said Strosberg, who is a past president of the Schenectady County Medical Society and was also chief of medicine at Ellis Hospital and chief of rheumatology at Sunnyview Hospital. "I think New York has done a good job and the county has done a good job. We had so many people showing up to volunteer after this thing started, retired doctors and nurses, that I stopped showing up. The room got too crowded.

As with COVID-19, the flu pandemic of 1918 put a real strain on the medical community.

"Schools closed and they ran out of hospital beds, and had to open up a recently closed Catholic hospital on Union Street," said Strosberg. "The viruses both attacked the lungs, but the 1918 virus had a much faster incubation period of just a couple of days and not a couple of weeks. It really acted fast. There were reports of people going to work in the morning and then dying at work later in the day.

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The impact of the Spanish Flu, while felt throughout the region, was more extreme in Schenectady than in the neighboring cities of Albany and Troy.

"Schenectady was the most industrialized city in New York," said Strosberg. "We had more factory workers because of General Electric and the American Locomotive Company, and when you check the 1920 city directory you find out that Schenectady had over 120 bars and over 120 barbershops. It was about the density of population.

City Historian Chris Leonard agreed that in 1918, Schenectady was ripe for a pandemic.

"The population of Schenectady would have been somewhere from 85,000 to 88,000, based on the census of 1910 and 1920," said Leonard. "Of these, nearly 20,000 worked for General Electric and about 8,000 worked for ALCO. Although some of the employees came from nearby towns, it isn't hard to make a case that around one-third of the working population of Schenectady, or more, labored for these two companies. Factory floor employees would have worked in close proximity, giving influenza strong vectors to spread.

And the 85,000 to 88,000 Schenectadians would have been living in closer quarters than the 65,000 or so that live here today.

"The densest areas of population in the city would have been Hamilton Hill, Goose Hill and downtown," said Leonard. "The Stockade and Union College, although of lesser overall populations, were both well populated with much interaction between residents.

Schenectady had around 120 physicians back in 1918, and according to Strosberg 15 of them were sent overseas to help the war effort. Heading to Europe with them were plenty of nurses, leaving the medical community with a void. In his 2014 book, "Clara D. Noyes, R.N.: Life of a Global Nursing Leader," Roger Noyes looked at how the American Red Cross and its nurses played a pivotal role in fighting medical crises in the 19th and early 20th century. The name in the title of the book belongs to Noyes' great-great aunt.

"There were many American doctors and nurses in Europe for World War I, and then we have this other great medical issue at the same time on the home front," said Noyes, a Union College alum who lives in Slingerlands. "People like Clara Noyes and other public health officials realized that managing the Spanish Flu pandemic was vitally important, and they had to rise to the occasion and deal with that as well as World War I, or the catastrophe would have been worse.

What Clara Noyes did was to spearhead a Red Cross effort to train nurses around the country to help deal with the pandemic. They didn't get everything right, but they gained from the experience.

"They looked at how best to manage a public health crisis in a way no one ever had before," said Noyes. "In the face of this overwhelming crisis, they advanced new policies, learned how to implement them and put them into action at a future date. Nurses played a big role, because at this time there was a new class of professionally trained nurses.

It was the 1910 Flexner Report that transformed the nature and process of medical education in the U.S., and in that same year Charles Duryee, a physician and also mayor of Schenectady, hosted the state's first mayoral conference. Much of the discussion in that first gathering focused on public health, and it was Duryee's Democratic administration that initiated health clinics throughout the city. And when Socialist George Lunn succeeded him in 1912, he expanded what Duryee had created.

Strosberg's brother, Martin, professor emeritus at Union College and Clarkson University, has also researched that time period closely, and said the pandemic's impact might have been far worse if not for the vision of those two Schenectady mayors.

"Duryee and Lunn built the public health infrastructure of the Bureau of Health, responsible to the commissioner of public safety," said Strosberg, also a Union College grad who got his master's in public health administration from the University of California at Berkeley and his doctorate in public administration from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. "Building up the authority and legitimacy and respect for the health officer made it easier to shut down the city, which probably reduced mortality and morbidity.

While Schenectady officials were relatively competent during the crisis, that wasn't the case at the top of government. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who just last month had his name removed from a building at Princeton, where he was a professor and college president, failed to do much of anything to battle the pandemic.

"Wilson never made one public comment on a disease that killed 650,000 Americans," said Strosberg. "The surgeon general of the Army went to speak to him and pleaded for him to quarantine our soldiers before they went on ships overseas, and Wilson refused. As a result, instead of dying at the front with a bullet, they died on ships on the way to Europe by the hundreds. He was a self-righteous Presbyterian who shut down a lot of speakeasies and brothels because he was a tyrant against venereal disease. He didn't want military members to go to brothels, but he did nothing to help them against the Spanish Flu.

While Wilson's response may have been lacking, American women stepped up and were noticed, according to Noyes.

"The response to the pandemic and the war effort by nurses helped do a number of amazing things during that time period," said Noyes, "including advancing the women's suffrage movement. Due to the professionalization of nursing, women were suddenly in all sorts of executive roles that had never been seen before. They gained military rank because of the crisis. They suddenly had bars on their shoulders, and there were a number of other positive trends that grew out of the crisis on the domestic front."

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