Paul S. Russell, MD Museum

While the 2012-13 flu season has been an intense one so far, it is by no means the worst in the lengthy history of the MGH.

A look back: MGH and the flu

18/Jan/2013

While the 2012-13 flu season has been an intense one so far, it is by no means the worst in the lengthy history of the MGH. One season that stands out in the hospital’s historical records was the Spanish flu of 1918. The pandemic, which came on the heels of World War I, infected more than 500 million people globally. Boston was hit particularly hard by the virulent strain, which was thought to have come into the local port with military shipments.

During this epidemic, the MGH treated thousands of flu patients, but in many cases there was very little caregivers could do to fight the virus. In a compilation of house pupil recollections gathered by James H. Means, MD, MGH chief of Medicine from 1923 to 1951, Thomas D. Cunningham, MD, recalled his experiences treating the overwhelming numbers of patients when he was an intern at the MGH in 1918.

“The Surgical wards were turned over to Medical cases. Each Medical interne was put in charge of a ward, and the two senior Medical internes took alternate turns in the Emergency Ward, never leaving, as the cases poured in so fast. ... During the first week of the epidemic, 57 percent of the admissions died. The morgue was completely filled, and the undertakers could not begin to keep up with the number of dead. Many patients were brought to the emergency ward dead in the ambulance. Others would die an hour after admission. It was not unusual to pass two or three of your patients being carried out the back door as you were going up to make your midnight visit.”


Read more articles from the 01/18/13 Hotline issue.