Doc brought hope to flu victims

When The Commercial-News printed this announcement on Oct. 15, 1918, local residents had no idea how far-reaching the effects of the flu would be on the nation.

Dr. William T. Snider let his patients know he was proud of his old horse as he made his rounds in October 1918. The country roads were so bad, he preferred to travel in a buggy rather than a car. The Vermilion County physician was treating people who had been infected by what was titled the Spanish Influenza.

The virus had swept into the county that month. Dr. Snider made house calls after his office hours in the village of Oakwood. He hung a lantern on his buggy when darkness overtook him because it was often late at night when he saw his last rural patient. He knew if he fell asleep at the reins, his faithful horse would take him home.

The flu was bad in the county by the middle of October that year. People were dying every day and numerous others were stricken. At the Danville City Council meeting on Oct.14, closing of businesses was discussed to prevent the spread of the virus. Dr. Williams, a staff member at Lake View Hospital (OSF today), pointed out large gatherings of people were allowing the virus to spread.

The manager of the Central Theater on East Main Street did not agree with that view; he stated he had observed very little sneezing and coughing at his theater. Dr. Williams countered by saying any sneezing or coughing in a crowd was the quickest way to spread the influenza. He also reported all the doctors in the city were keeping their family members away from public gatherings.

The council members discussed the various opinions they heard and then decided not to force closings because it would be bad for business. Dr. Williams surmised it might be better to lose business than spread the virus.

The State of Illinois did what the city council failed to do. The Illinois Board of Health ordered all theaters and various other “places of amusement to close.” Schools also were closed. Danville Health Commissioner George T. Case had the order printed in the Oct. 18 edition of The Commercial-News.

The severity of the epidemic was reflected by the fact Red Cross volunteers were making face masks in the basements of the Chamber of Commerce building and the Danville Public Library. Postal workers were required to wear face masks and people in increasing numbers could be seen wearing them on the streets of Danville.

Doctors pointed out wearing the masks and avoiding crowds were two ways to slow the spread of the virus. Pneumonia jackets also were being made at the Danville Public Library because many flu victims developed that condition, a leading cause of death.

The Civilian Relief Committee of the Red Cross was providing transportation for nurses, sick families, and others during the crisis. The organization also was providing volunteers “who have had some knowledge of caring for people” to provide relief for exhausted nurses who “have become worn out.”

Many businesses shut down because the epidemic affected a large number of employees. The seven movie theaters in the city of Danville were closed for more than a month beginning in mid-October. The retail businesses that stayed open through the epidemic in Vermilion County reported a sharp drop in business. Industries also reported “record absenteeism” as workers fell ill to the flu. Saloons that stayed open removed tables and chairs to encourage customers not to linger.

The Commercial-News periodically printed names and addresses of influenza cases. In the Oct. 19 newspaper, dozens of names were listed for the previous 20 hours. Many of them were young; among them, seven of the nine children of the Vogt family of Bismarck. Entire families also were identified among those stricken with the virus.

Just when it seemed there would be no end to the sickness that had arrived that autumn, the number of new cases began to decline. Hoopeston had reported an average of 37 new cases a day in the week ending Oct. 19. The first days of the following week, the average dropped to 22 new cases per day.

The Spanish Influenza peaked in October in Vermilion County. Eighty-seven people perished in Danville and numerous others perished in the county that month. In the state, it was reported 18,000 had died by Nov. 1 and hundreds of thousand had fallen ill. The epidemic continued to claim lives through the remainder of the year and into the new year, but October was the deadliest month. The majority of the victims were under the age of 40. It was speculated the influenza ended when there were no longer new bodies left to host the virus.

Dr. Snider become somewhat of a local legend during the epidemic as he worked day and night caring for victims. One of his rural patients recalled his family used a lot of Vicks and home remedies to relieve the flu symptoms. He missed three weeks’ work, but remarked things were back to normal by the end of November.

He remembered when Dr. Snider visited during the epidemic, he prescribed rest and advised the only cure for the influenza was to “wear it off.” He recalled he “always felt better after a visit from Doc.” Perhaps that was because the physician also delivered compassion and hope to his patients — a welcome prescription that was certainly needed during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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