Nothing during his career had prepared him for the vision that awaited him at the hospital in Camp Devens, Kansas, USA, in September 1918.
One hundred years ago: Spanish illness claimed fifty million lives
William Henry Welch was known for his ability to keep his head cold. With his practical and methodical approach, he was a good representative of the modern-day doctors – men in white coats armed with test tubes, stethoscopes, and medical records, winning the fight against illness and suffering.
Welch, who was also a true patriot, had left a position at one of America’s most renowned faculties to work in the Army when the United States entered World War I.
The men lay on tent beds or on the floor in large, open rooms. They eyed themselves, cried in high fever and twisted between bloody sheets. Many of them had a bluish hue to their face.
The buildings were intended for 2,000 patients, but 8,000 were hospitalized.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918
Just during the day Welch visited, 63 patients had died. To enter the autopsy room, he has to step over the bodies that were not fit in the courthouse.
Could not rule out the plague
During the autopsy, Welch saw that the lungs of the dead were filled with blood. The colleagues looked at him questioningly. They knew he had traveled to Asia and studied exotic diseases, and they hoped he would have a good explanation.
But Welch stared blankly in front of him, clear cut. “It must be a new kind of infection,” he said, and then used a word they thought had disappeared from modern medical books – “or the plague.” Whatever the case, the disease was at least behaving like the plague.
Patients suffered from fever, headaches, and pain throughout the body. It felt like my legs were broken, some said. Even a light touch was painful.
The patients were bleeding from the mouth, nose, and ears. Some coughed up blood during seizures that were so intense that the abdominal muscles tore and the cartilage around the ribs was destroyed.
Often patients died within 48 hours. During the last stages of the disease, the lungs were so damaged that the patient turned blue around the fingers and in the face due to lack of oxygen.
Influenza pandemic 1918 (January 1918 – December 1920; also known as the Spanish flu) was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, the first of the two pandemics involving the H1N1 influenza virus, the second of which was the swine flu in 2009. The Spanish flu infected 500 million people around in the world or about 27% of the world population between 1.8 and 1.9 billion. The death toll is estimated to have been between 17 million and 50 million, and perhaps as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.
Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill the very young and the very old, with a higher survival rate for them in between, but the Spanish flu pandemic resulted in higher mortality than expected for young adults.