On this date in 1918, a small British passenger ship that had been converted to a wartime cargo vessel was finally allowed to dock at its destination port of Philadelphia. The HMS City of Exeter had sailed out of Liverpool on June 9, but as soon as it hit the open sea, members of its crew, primarily men from India, were laid low by an illness then known as "the grippe."
The term comes from French and it described the vise-like way this illness took hold of its victims. By mid-summer the entire world would know it as the "Spanish Flu," although it didn't come from Spain, and we now call it the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918. In any event, some of the ship's crew members were apparently buried at sea, while many others were fighting for their lives when the City of Exeter entered the mouth of the Delaware River on June 21.
In a grim foreshadowing of what would happen with cruise ships a century later when COVID-19 escaped China, Philadelphia health officials ordered the City of Exeter quarantined for nine days. The crew was then evacuated to a local hospital ward set up to prevent the spread of the virus.
* * *
After Philadelphia health authorities ordered the City of Exeter quarantined, the British consul helped facilitate the removal of some of the ship's crew to a hospital under extraordinary arrangements overseen by doctors and medical students from the University of Pennsylvania. The crew members were isolated in a separate ward, attended by specialists wearing masks and gloves. But no cure was available to this virus, just as no cure is available to the novel coronavirus crippling the world today, and the crewmen from the City of Exeter began dying anyway. The precise cause of their deaths was something of a mystery. It seemed like pneumonia, but the attending physicians noticed symptoms not associated with pneumonia -- bleeding through the nose, for one -- and one medical student noted in his records, "The opinion was reached that they had influenza." But as author John M. Barry noted in his classic account of the 1918 pandemic, America was at war and Britain was an ally, so when newspaper reporters asked about the deaths, public health officials assured them that the men were not dying from influenza. "They were lying," Barry wrote bluntly.
Nonetheless, mitigation efforts worked: The Spanish influenza did not escape into the general populace of Philadelphia. Not then, anyway. But the virus would return to Philadelphia by August, probably mutated, in greater numerical force, and ready for battle again. This time, the city and the rest of Pennsylvania would not be so fortunate.
Writing about these events a year before the phrase COVID-19 had been coined, medical historian James Higgins sounded a prescient warning.
"Yet, even a century removed from the greatest of disasters in the city's long history," Higgins wrote, "historians and public health experts draw upon its story to remind leaders and the public that what once happened in Philadelphia might happen again were a new, virulent influenza virus to suddenly appear."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.