World War I. had hardly been over when a new enemy appeared on the horizon: an invisible murderer. The pandemic taking several millions of lives started out as common influenza. Patients first started to suffer from high temperature and muscle pain then in the next phase it produced pneumonia-like symptoms. Whole families died all across Europe many of them suffocated because of the mucus they coughed up. The pandemic appeared in May 1918 on the Western Front in France and started spreading to Spain: the first medical description of the case was written there hence the name: Spanish Flu.
The pandemic spread in multiple waves and by July — August that year it reached Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Between 1918 and 1920 victims of the disease counted up to over 20 million, which is somewhat higher than the victims of World War I.
After the War several hundred thousand soldiers were crowded in the harbours of European cities waiting to be transported home. They were crowded into small spaces like store chambers of troopships, rail wagons, huge shelter camps and the pandemic could spread here at a fast pace, so homecoming soldiers carried it into every country. The Reaper was frequent among citizens with a weakened immune system after the privations of war. Hospitals quickly ran out of capacity, most people died at home without proper treatment. But the situation was not better in hospitals either. Medical masks, gloves and gowns did not provide protection against the droplet-spread virus. Corpses were handled according to the contemporary pandemic regulations and were burned or buried into mass graves disinfected with lime.
By October 1918 the epidemic gets incredibly huge. Budapest hospitals registered 1990 patients on a single day 19th October 1918. The media demands a government commissioner to be assigned. Due to preventive actions the pandemic somewhat subsides only to intensify again a little later. Margit Kaffka and her son also got ill at this time. One of the first generation members of Nyugat the 20th century modern Hungarian literature talent was put into grave with her son. Mihály Babits and Zsigmond Móricz spoke at her funeral. This is how Miskolci Napló remembered the great writer: “The Hungarian literary scene suffered a great loss: Margit Kaffka passed away. The newly formed Vörösmarty Academy and all the other poetry and science societies to which the excellent writer contributed mourn over the loss that hit the Hungarian art of writing for the pen fell out of the hand of a most dedicated artist. Us, Miskolcians may even be more profoundly shocked than those who only know the talented poet through her literary works. After all she belonged here, lived among us, taught the young generation of girls. I also think that those who had the chance to receive education from her excellent self would always remember Margit Kaffka even if she had only been a pedagogist in her rich and diverse intellectual life.”
The epidemic finally subsided and disappeared well fed like a mythological monster. However, in the beginning of 1920 fear arouse that the epidemic started again. This time most patients were among those who did not catch the disease in 1918 or who lived in crowded, damp basement flats without heating. This is how a rhyme of that time tells about the victims of the plague: “On lots of wooden crosses / Lots of greyed out names / Is this how we start / our first year of peace…”
SPANISH FLU IN MISKOLC
Spanish Flu appeared in Miskolc in the summer of 1918 and killed a lot of people right in the beginning. Dr. István Tüdős, protestant bishop died on 7th October then on 30th December was followed by Benő Hidvégi, who had been the royal school inspector of Miskolc and Borsod County for over 25 years.
The army made a separate pavilion in the barracks next to the lockup-house available for the Municipality to accommodate patients there. The pandemic raged for 3 months in Miskolc. First the number of theatre, film and circus shows were reduced, later these institutions were closed. People are informed from the 25th September issue of Miskolci Napló that there are already several thousand people infected by the Spanish Flu. In the beginning people were not aware how serious the problem was. They often made jokes about its name. By September it was clear for everyone that the situation is not at all a laughing matter. The daily paper asked the opinion of four honourable physicians. Dr. Ármin Szabó, Municipal Chief Medical Officer admits that the authorities did not have reliable data about the exact number of infected people because many of them did not see a doctor. Dr. Imre Pfliegler, Chief Medical Officer called attention to the fact that the bacillus causing the Spanish-disease is impossible to identify. In Dr. Miksa Egri, County Chief Medical Officer’s opinion the disease that spread here does not belong to the virus strain identified in Spain but it is part of a strain that was lethal to many in Russia in the 1890s.
Two days later Reggeli Hírlap demands on its cover to close all schools in Miskolc as a preventive action. The article states that several schools are already missing a lot of students because of the disease. The situation was most tragic in the Archiepiscopal Young Ladies’ Seminary where the number of missing students went up to 226 and in the Royal Catholic Grammar School where among the 150 infected students there were some who had already passed away. On Dr. Ármin Szabó, Municipal Chief Medical Officer’s advice the Mayor ordered the schools to be closed between 28th September and 6th October.
By 1st October more and more physicians had fallen and it seemed that the epidemic is out of control. The situation was most dramatic among the railway employees as there were 230 people at the Gömöri Railway Station and 600 people at the Tiszai Railway Station who received the disease. Circus Könyöt, which arrived to Miskolc a few days before, had to suffer tragic times too. 29 men, 11 women and 7 children were taken to the barrack on the farther bank of Sajó River and were kept there under the strictest control. This was the case which made people understand that institutions visited by crowds of people, cafés, restaurants should be all closed in order to stop the epidemic.
István Szentpáli, Mayor of Miskolc disclosed a public notice on 1st October 1918 with the title: “What to know about the prevention of influenza (Spanish disease) — Minor cases of the influenza (Spanish disease) presently spread produce symptoms like nose-cold, hoarseness, coughs and minor nausea. In severe cases the symptoms mentioned are stronger and temperature can go up to 39—40 °C, patients get weak and have no appetite, they often suffer from severe pain in fact such complications may develop as pneumonia or pleurisy.”
The 2nd October issue of Reggeli Hírlap listed the names, gender and age of all the victims. The number of deaths tripled within a month. 19 men, 17 women and 30 children died in September. By the 6th October it turned out that they cannot yet open schools so they extended the shutdown until the 21st October. This was because between 1st and 6th October 27 people died and the average number of registered patients per day was almost 40.
Journalists tried to ease the fear in people by bitter pieces of humour. A publicist at Miskolci Napló wrote the following few lines with the title: “That Spanish stuff — (Minor discomfort) — They say it came from Spain hence the name. This may not even be a flu as thought by a few for it is so devastating. Everyone gets it, everyone suffers from it except for those who find their deaths within twenty four hours. However it is not taken seriously enough apart from giving it a nick name nothing has been done to stop it, no preventive regulation have been initiated. In the meanwhile people die like flies… ”
By October the city leaders drew a so-called epidemic map which could help them isolate the most affected parts of the city. The situation was the worst in the small houses and crowded flats on the narrow streets of Gordon, 1st district where the germs could find a perfect nest. The city requested the citizens to put a red ribbon on the houses where there are infected people. People could ask the City for experts to disinfect their houses after the disease was gone.
Dr. István Tüdős, protestant bishop in the west of the Tisza area, distinctive public figure in Miskolc died on 7th October. “Dr. István Tüdős had a most honoured and respected name all around the country. His ecclesiastic work had already made his name famous before he even became a bishop as his philosophy had always been liberalism and patience. (…) He had a brilliant mind and a big heart, he did a great and important service for his country, his church and his city with his knowledge…”
The spreading of the epidemic and the daily growing number of victims made the locals very disappointed because they had the impression that Miskolc was left alone in the battle against the Spanish Flu. A journalist at Miskolci Napló put his aggravation into words the following way: “While I have never favoured Budapest, now, at the time when Spanish Flu is a threat, I regret living in the countryside (…) We are all lost people here in Miskolc, no one cares about us, this is why we lose such an awful many people.” As it could be expected by seeing how the epidemic spread, the shutdown of public institutions was extended until the 10th November. Doctors and nurses fought a heroic battle against the Spanish Flu. The arrival of military surgeons, the isolated Barracks, the assignment epidemic hospitals were among the preventive actions. Since there was no medicine for the disease isolation and disinfection were the only effective preventive actions. They tried to locate the centres of the epidemic and isolate patients, disinfect affected spaces and hoped they can slow its spreading down or even stop the epidemic. Most victims of the Spanish Flu in Miskolc died between September and November.
By the beginning of 1919 the epidemic slowly receded, but it reappeared in the beginning of 1920. This is when the sub-prefect ordered general practitioners to list the number of patients registered in each district so they could take action in time to prevent a more severe pandemic from emerging.
The following can be read in the Miskolc report of the epidemic: “In the communities of my district I could register 157 cases of the disease altogether with mostly minor cases in January and in higher numbers and with more severe symptoms in February. The 157 registered cases do not represent the total number of infected people as the majority of the cases — especially with children — were so minor that no treatment was necessary. I found that in small and crowded flats which lacked proper airing there were barely any family members who didn’t get ill. As soon as the weather let them and people started spending more time outdoors the number of infected people immediately started to decrease. Treatment can only be performed on an individual level, no special medical treatment can influence the process of the disease. Besides maintaining the condition of the heart action it is most important to fight alarming symptoms.”
The general practitioner of Rudabánya sent his report on 28th March with details about symptoms he noticed with his patients. “In the case of 4 children we noticed symptoms never seen before. Namely, toward the end of the illness severe somnolence was noticeable without a high temperature and the children who were woken from their sleep and had to be forced to stay awake did not produce any symptoms which could suggest that their conscious mental activity was affected to any extent. If I let any of these children fall asleep they would immediately fall into a deep coma and could hardly be woken up and their pulse and breathing were gradually weakening.”
The fast spreading of the Spanish Flu raging in the beginning of the 20th century was also captured in an English children’s rhyme:
I had a little bird, Volt nekem egy kismadaram
It’s nam was Enza. A neve volt Enza.
I opened the window Kinyitottam az ablakom
and in-flu-enza. és berepült rajta. (in-flu-enza)