La Grippe, or its more common name Spanish Influenza (influenza), came to Napier on October 27, 1918, when 13 members of the SS Mako, sailing from Auckland via Gisborne, arrived at Napier Port stricken with the illness.
The isolation ward at Napier Hospital promptly admitted the sailors. One of the men, Craddock Adams, was the first to die of influenza in Napier on November 4, 1918.
When the district nurse returned from her rounds late on November 5, she had some alarming news ─ she had come across people with influenza in the Napier community. One of these was admitted to the Napier Hospital isolation ward by ambulance.
Napier mayor Henry Hill and his councillors held an informal meeting later in the day on November 5 to discuss what measures should be taken if influenza spread. Henry Hill admitted that day to The Daily Telegraph his only knowledge of the influenza's presence in Napier was from reading newspapers.
All four district nurses had caught influenza by November 7, and in the days ahead the sickness would spread to other Napier doctors and nurses. In desperation, a visiting fifth year medical student, Mr Anderson, was asked by the hospital board to stay and assist them ─ which he did. A local man, Arnold Gilray, also a fifth year medical student, helped as well.
One of the first measures to combat influenza by the Napier Borough Council was to open on November 10 an inhalation chamber in a room at the Municipal Baths on Marine Parade.
The chamber's purpose was to coat a mixture of zinc sulphate in the lungs and respiratory areas to kill any present bacteria. This initially was the only approved preventative measure by the Department of Public Health. Many chemists, however, peddled their wonder cure concoctions to the public.
By November 11, four Napier deaths had occurred from influenza, and fearing the worst a temporary hospital was set up in Burlington Rd with accommodation for 20 patients.
At this point Napier had many cases of influenza, but most were mild. Ironically, an event thousands of miles away in Europe ─ the Armistice─ would cause influenza to spread further in Napier. The Armistice celebrations to mark the end of World War I on November 12 resulted in thousands spilling onto streets. And those who were infected spread the illness, and by November 14 over 500 Napier people had influenza.
Mayor Henry Hill responded to the outbreak on November 14 by authorising the council to purchase Napier's entire supply of lemons and oranges to avoid profiteering (which did occur later) and allow distribution to those most in need.
Arthur McCarthy, the deputy mayor of Napier, caught the illness and died in November. He was a noted footballer and was in business as a real estate agent.
The Red Cross used Napier Technical School (wrecked in the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake and never rebuilt) as a base to distribute food and provide care for invalids.
Shopping became almost intolerable due to shopkeepers fumigating their premises.
Napier doctors adopted a 'block' system of care around November 15, when the city was divided into blocks, and each doctor cared for patients within the assigned area. Each block was canvassed for sick, and the 'block' doctor was advised on the worst cases to visit. Hastings had rejected the block system as unworkable.
In another measure, refuse from the Napier Gas Works was burned in braziers in the city streets, hoping the fumes would destroy airborne bacteria.
Another temporary hospital was opened at Napier West School in Hastings St on about November 18 as the numbers of afflicted began to swell. Eighty patients could be accommodated there.
Both doctors and nurses began to catch influenza, including hospital doctors Dorsett, Moore, Henley, Gilray and medical student Arnold Gilray. Several doctors in private practice also fell ill. From an average staff of 50 nurses at Napier hospital; most contracted influenza. Only one senior and 12 junior nurses were left to staff the seven wards of the hospital in mid-November. A nurse, Miss Burgess, and an office worker, Miss Griffin, died from influenza.
Due to nursing staff falling ill, volunteers were sought to assist in the hospitals. Some became disgruntled with the lack of young female volunteers, and suggested that white feathers be pinned to the "young idle girls of the town", as they did to young men who did not serve in World War I.
Napier cinemas, billiard saloons and most public meeting places were closed. Gatherings of Māori were prohibited by police and the hospital authorities (a watchful eye was kept on the welfare of Māori in rural areas). However, hotel bars could remain open for most of the day ─ further spreading influenza. The logic of this was lost on many, as men shared drinking vessels and breathed on each other in proximity.
One Napier gentleman suggested by letter to the editor of The Daily Telegraph in 1903 that banknotes should be washed for a few seconds and coins boiled to rid them from germs. His letter was refused publication then on the grounds of upsetting banks. With a certain amount of glee, his letter was resubmitted by him and this time published on November 21, 1918 ─ any advice on preventing influenza it seems was welcome.
Funeral processions were a common sight in Napier streets during late November and seemed out of place amongst Armistice decorations still on display, with most too sick to remove them. Napier resembled, as one local put it "a house of the dead", due to the constant funeral processions.
Spanish Influenza was all but over at the end of December 1918. Thousands had been infected, and more than 100 Napier people died of the illness. Almost one in a hundred people in the Napier district perished from influenza.
My friend Rose Mohi pointed out to me there were no influenza deaths in Havelock North, attributed by some to Dr Robert Felkin. Havelock North began to grow after this period, with many believing the higher attitude of the hills had healthier air.
Michael Fowler (email@example.com) is a contract researcher and writer for business and organisational histories.