By Lauren Gray
Coinciding with the end of World War I in 1918, the Spanish Influenza rapidly spread across the globe and devastated populations world-wide. The pandemic reached New Mexico in late fall of 1918; by October 26, 1918, fifteen thousand New Mexican residents had been struck ill and over one thousand were dead.
Carlsbad, Clovis, and Gallup were the first towns to report the flu and cases quickly spread across the state. Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, admitted its first case on October 7, 1918 and on October 11, 1918, the first death was reported but by October 21, 1918, the epidemic had passed. The influenza was more difficult to treat in rural communities because many lacked nurses and doctors to treat the disease. Patients in rural areas suffered for longer periods than did those in urban areas for this reason.
At the time of the pandemic, the newly admitted state of New Mexico did not have a Department of Health. Instead, the loosely formed Board of Health regulated public health concerns throughout the state. However, the power of the Board was limited to quarantines of infected individuals, investigations into various health concerns, and the ability to appoint health inspectors. The Board held no legal jurisdiction but instead was encouraged “to convince local courts of danger,” or “to complain to a justice of the peace and secure the issue of a warrant to the sheriff…” to enforce regulations or rulings. The lack of organization was blamed for the state’s inability to deal affectively with the pandemic. Before and during the early stages of the pandemic, the Board was concerned with the spread of venereal diseases brought back by returning soldiers from Europe though their attentions quickly changed to the new heath conditions affecting the state. The Board had some authority to deal with the crisis but no means of using it because there was no connecting link between the board and the health boards of the various counties and many rural communities and “consequently no standardization of work and no interchange of ideas.” The Board was also short of funds and personnel to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.
The New Mexico constitution did not offer any guidelines for public health proceedings. However, it did forbid the “annulment by people of the necessary health laws and permits passage without delays of laws relating to health and safety.” Each county in New Mexico was required to have a health officer, though many communities lacked a resident physician. This lack of trained medical workers led to increased deaths during the pandemic due to unavoidable negligence. One surgeon reportedly made nearly 800 separate visits to care for the sick, but there simply were not enough personnel to curb the spread of the flu. During the pandemic, nurses were in high demand but their close proximity to the disease often led to their own infection and death. Taos was said to be in “deplorable” condition, and the state governor’s office was inundated with pleas for medical assistance from towns across New Mexico. However, the state had little help to offer.
J. W. Kerr, an employee of the United States Public Health Service and acting under the Surgeon General of the United States, happened to be taking a survey of New Mexico health policies when the pandemic first struck. Kerr quickly organized emergency workers and attempted to supply communities with surgeons and medical supplies. He even arranged for some doctors and nurses to be brought in from as far away as New York. John Tombs, the Executive Secretary of the New Mexico Public Health Association, worked closely with the Red Cross to import nurses from the surrounding states.
The indigenous populations of New Mexico were also heavily affected by the influenza. One physician, Dr. D.A. Richardson, answered the call from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and traveled to New Mexico to oversee health practices in the Pueblos of Albuquerque Day School section. Arriving at Isleta Pueblo in late October, 1918, he found the inhabitants “in all stages of the Flu, Indians lying dead or dying or advancing well to the conditions which followed the Flu.” Richardson provided documented accounts of the influenza, including symptoms and further complications after the initial sickness had passed: “The beginning of the Flu is prostration, with headache, ooryza, more or less running of the nose, but it is marked by great prostration; the patients, in the case of the Indians, literally falling to the floor.” The Indians, he reported, would recline on “thin mattresses with their backs against the cold wall, with hard, racking cough, some sneezing, the children running at the nose, the temperature ranging from 102 to 105.”
Richardson encouraged his patients to rest, preferably in a “horizontal position,” and to remain on a strict liquid diet, and drink “abundantly” of hot water. He also prescribed “open toilets.” Ten days was the recommended rest period, and Richardson reported that he had very little trouble convincing the Indians to follow his regime. He was successful in curing most patients, except, he said, those who insisted on going outside or otherwise deviating from his care.
The influenza scare in New Mexico significantly altered the new state’s perception of health care and administration. As the pandemic was brought under control by the teams of dedicated nurses and doctors who worked around the state, the New Mexico Public Health Association warned the state government that “at any moment out of nowhere may come the black hand of death. Let us have a health department in New Mexico, not to institute quarantine, not to investigate conditions when an epidemic is raging, but for the protection of the public health and the prevention of disease.” The 1919 population of New Mexico was approximately 360,000 and during the pandemic over 50,000 cases of the influenza were reported. As many as 5,000 people may have died from sickness, but because of the poor reporting methods of the time, we will never know the exact number. Suffice it to say that shortly thereafter, steps were taken in New Mexico to increase health awareness and to create new departments to oversee the public health.
Governor Washington E. Lindsey papers, 1917-1918. Box 14117 Folder 167; Box 14118 Folder 178. June 2008.
Rees, Clifford M. Spanish Influenza in New Mexico, 1918-1919: The Role of the State and Local Public Health Measures. ABA Health eSource. Vol 2. No. 4. Dec 2005.