When sickness strikes | How Akron coped with contagions of the past

by Charlotte Gintert

Akron, we have been here before. While none of us have lived through a pandemic, this type of event is nothing new in our city’s history. A look into the past may provide a little guidance and little hope for dealing with this difficult time.

Akron’s first bout with mass infection was in the summer of 1827. The town was just two years old. At the time, the plague was called “black tongue fever,” but it was probably typhus. The disease swept through the canal worker camps, Akron, the town of Middlebury next door and all the way north to the Village of Boston in the Cuyahoga Valley.

In order to supply water for the Ohio & Erie Canal, Summit Lake had been lowered eight feet. This killed nearly all the wetland plants that had surrounded the lake, and the terrible smell was blamed for the disease sweeping through the area. 

More than likely, however, it was brought by the canal workers. The living conditions in the canal camps were appalling and perfect for breeding and harboring disease. While historic records do not provide specific numbers, they do indicate that because so many people died so quickly, the majority of Akron’s remaining population fled the area. Stores and taverns closed and the local economy stalled to a halt. 

Medical care during the early 1800s was a far cry from the modern medicine of today. It is likely that many passings were hastened by the treatments of the frontier doctors. Some of those included covering patients with blankets to make them sweat, prescribing medications that induced vomiting and withholding water. 

Akron’s population wouldn’t recover until the fall of 1828.

Of course, the 1918 Spanish flu is the pandemic being referenced the most in comparison to COVID-19. This strain of influenza is called the Spanish flu not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain was the only country giving full media coverage of the epidemic when it began to surface in Europe. (The rest of European media was censored during this time because of World War I. Spain had been neutral during the conflict.) 

Unlike COVID-19, the Spanish flu was more likely to kill young people than the elderly. The average age range of victims was 20 to 40 years old. The fatality rate was 2.5 percent.

It began creeping into Ohio from the east coast in September. The situation was managed much differently than it had been nearly 91 years prior. Dr. Charles T. Nesbitt, head of the Akron health department, took immediate action in October, before the first cases were reported in the city. He said in a statement on October 3, “The control of this disease is almost exclusively a matter of individual conduct.” 

He advised that people avoid crowds and individuals who appeared to be sick. He said the biggest risk was coming into contact with individuals who were infected, but did not yet show symptoms. He also stressed the importance of covering one’s mouth and nose during a sneeze or cough.

The first cases of the Spanish flu in Akron were reported on October 5. Nesbitt, in a move similar to the actions of Ohio Governor DeWine, banned mass gatherings, closed schools, clubs, churches, and theaters on October 12. All organized sporting events were cancelled. Many of these actions had been adopted by other communities nationwide and their data showed that the sooner the closings happened, the less the disease could spread and kill. 

According to an Akron Beacon Journal article on October 12, Akron’s first death from the Spanish flu took place in the Kelly Avenue home of Donald Smith. The paper reported the victim was his sister. Nesbitt required that all city doctors report every case to his office so he could stay up to date on how the virus was spreading in the region.

Over 200 people died within the first month. The Akron Armory, which had been completed  earlier that year as a training site for the Ohio National Guard, was transformed into a makeshift hospital due to the shortage of beds in the city’s three other hospitals. Olive E. Beason, director of public health nursing, and her staff were in charge of care at the Armory.

The total number of deaths in Akron would reach approximately 630. More than 7,000 people would contract the disease. The ban on gatherings was lifted in mid-November and the infections and deaths began to taper locally toward the end of the year. 

The Spanish flu pandemic ended globally in the summer of 1919.

Looking back at these two events in Akron, we can thankfully say COVID-19 has little in common with the typhus epidemic of 1827. We have the advantage of modern medicine and an understanding of the importance of personal hygiene. But there are many similarities between our current experience and that of the 1918 Spanish flu. As they are today, authorities looked to experts for advice and quickly enacted policies intended to slow the rate of spread. Also, researchers from across the country shared their findings and collaborated. Without these actions, the death toll, though high, would have been much higher.

Also, like today, there was a palpable feeling of dread and fear. There were definitely instances of panic buying and falling prey to miracle cures — an ad in the Akron Evening Times, for example, touts “a sure cure for what ails you” and “baths of all kinds” at a doctor’s office on South Main Street. However, one can take comfort in the fact that for the most part, Akron held it together. There are no reports of chaos in the streets or a spike in crime. Neighbors came together to care for each other. Akron came out the other side of the Spanish flu wounded, but not defeated.

While medical care has certainly advanced beyond that of 1918 standards, many of these methods are tried and true. Following the guidance of health experts and civic leaders is vital, as is social distancing and helping those in need.

If our history is anything to go by, the Akron of 2020 will make it out the other side of COVID-19 too. 

Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist and a photographer. Akron’s past is kinda her thing. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses.

Photo: Newspapers.com