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Alaska Life

Scarlet fever, diphtheria, polio: How the 1918-19 influenza pandemic shaped the way Alaskans faced other outbreaks

  • Author: David Reamer
    | Histories of Anchorage
  • Updated: May 11
  • Published May 10

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Editor’s note: This column is the third installment of a series by historian David Reamer about Alaska’s history of epidemics and quarantines.

When the influenza pandemic of 1918 to 1919, also known as the Spanish influenza or Spanish flu, reached Alaska by October 1918, Alaskans were unprepared for a public health disaster of that scale. Most Alaska communities, including Anchorage, only established organizations like boards of health with that pandemic’s arrival.

Previous epidemics in Alaska had primarily affected Alaska Natives. For example, the Great Sickness of 1900, a virulent measles and influenza outbreak, decimated many Alaska Native communities in western Alaska. However, perhaps as few as two non-Alaska Natives in the territory died during the epidemic, in the peak year of the Nome gold rush.

While the Spanish flu mortality rate for Alaska Natives was far higher than for colonial settlers, the virus did claim a significant number of settler lives. In recognition of the varying susceptibility of settlers and Alaska Natives for settler-carried diseases, contemporary Alaskan accounts of Spanish flu fatalities consistently listed settler and Alaska Native deaths separately.

Anchorage officials were better prepared for the town’s next significant disease outbreak, a scarlet fever epidemic in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley during the winter of 1935 to 1936. With seven confirmed and an unknown number of unidentified scarlet fever patients in Anchorage, Mayor Oscar Gill acted quickly to prevent a disaster. As chairman of the Anchorage Board of Health, Gill enacted a “strict quarantine” of Anchorage on Jan. 13, 1936.

Per his order, “The following places have been ordered closed: Schools, Theater, Fraternal Lodges, Churches, Dance Halls, Skating Rink and all places where people gather in numbers. Parents are notified to keep their children on their own premises. Any child found on the streets or loitering in public places will be taken care of by the city police, and any person violating the quarantine regulations will be dealt with under the Territorial Quarantine Law of Alaska.”

Scarlet fever primarily affects children; most victims are between 5 and 15 years old. Scarlet fever in America is something of a forgotten terror for most today. But during the early 20th century, scarlet fever was a leading cause of child death in America. Before the proliferation of antibiotics, the arrival, or even rumored arrival of scarlet fever in a community was enough to induce public hysteria. In Anchorage, individual cases of scarlet fever, including patients’ names, were front-page news. Some parents kept pre-made quarantine signs in their homes and cars.

Since school was canceled, some 1936 Anchorage parents faced a childcare dilemma that would be familiar to many 2020 parents. Despite the quarantine order, some parents allowed their children to roam free outside the home, assembling on the generally empty streets. While unwilling to engage with gangs of vacationing children, Anchorage police did arrest and jail one man for repeatedly leaving his lodging house. Tom Brown was fined a total of $225, about $4,200 in 2020 dollars, and sentenced to 130 days in jail.

As the quarantine went on, beleaguered parents and businesses increasingly besieged Mayor Oscar Gill with complaints and requests to reopen the city. He declared, “It would be moral suicide to lift it now when we have about a dozen victims sick in bed and no telling how many others have been exposed and will come down with the disease in the next few days.”

Finally, the quarantine was lifted on Jan. 25. Only one child died of scarlet fever in Anchorage during the quarantine, Peter Finyon of Cantwell. Finyon was brought to Anchorage for medical treatment after contracting the disease outside the city. More children, perhaps many more, would have likely died without the mayor’s action.

Gill’s unbending political will reinforced the authority of the Anchorage Board of Health, enabling later officials to act decisively when needed. In 1942, the seven known brothels in town were closed after health officials discovered the 16 women there employed were the source of 80 percent of Anchorage-area venereal disease cases. As with the temporary removal of prostitutes from Anchorage in 1916, the 1942 removal was both temporary and likely privately lamented by many authority figures.

In 1946, Anchorage endured a diphtheria outbreak, the same disease that afflicted Nome in 1925 and resulted in the enduring fame of Balto and Togo. On Aug. 2, a Friday, the city’s lead health official offered an “optimistic report” of a single isolated and no longer infectious case. On Aug. 3, 15 more cases were identified. By Monday, Aug. 5, there were 40 total cases. By Tuesday, long lines wound in front of local clinics as residents sought vaccinations.

On Aug. 5, Mayor Francis Bowden banned all public gatherings. Fifteen of the identified cases worked in bars and restaurants. Thus, the quarantine order also required all “handlers of food” to be tested and vaccinated to keep working. Per the order, “proprietors and managers . . . will be held strictly responsible for effective operation of this regulation.” Two Quonset huts across from the railroad depot became isolation wards.

On Thursday night, Aug. 8, Anchorage closed its borders. As with the travel health certificates required during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, those wanting to leave or enter the city had to obtain documented health clearance from a doctor, which expired within 72 hours.

Per the Anchorage Daily Times, many residents became “throat-wary.” Diphtheria primarily affects the throat, and testing was via throat cultures. Fear made friends turn on friends. One construction worker who tested positive for diphtheria, but hadn’t developed an active case, was “booted” from his home by his six coworker/roommates. He struggled to find housing until a Presbyterian minister intervened.

As in 1936, the 1946 quarantine was lifted after 12 days. Again, there was only one victim, and additional deaths appear to have been prevented by the swift, sure actions of city officials.

After the Spanish flu, Anchorage residents praised the work of nurses. After the 1936 scarlet fever outbreak, officials praised residents for their general adherence to quarantine restrictions. After the 1946 quarantine, Pan American World Airways ran advertisements in the Times praising themselves for delivering diphtheria serum. The ad claimed that Pan Am had, in “Shades of Balto,” acted when “quick action was needed.”

In 1954, another significant disease outbreak arrived in Anchorage, an especially virulent poliomyelitis, or polio, outbreak. Polio, like scarlet fever, was one of the great childhood disease fears of the 20th century’s first half. Long before the term existed, wary parents practiced preventive social distancing. Since polio was popularly considered most potent during the summer, some parents simply did not allow their children outside that season. Gareth Williams, in his book, “Paralyzed with Fear: The Story of Polio,” recounts how people refused to fill flat tires in towns with polio outbreaks, fearing that the local air itself was infected.

In 1954, there were 365 documented polio cases in Alaska, more than in the previous 15 years combined, and primarily centered in Anchorage and Seward. Of the 365, 189 individuals developed some paralysis. The mass polio immunization campaign in America began early the next year.

There were at least 10 polio deaths in 1954 Anchorage alone, compared to three the prior year, with an unknown territory-wide death count. In town, the outbreak peaked during July and August. Unlike in 1918, 1936, and 1946, there was no official quarantine. However, many organized activities including children that summer were voluntarily canceled. Meetings that could be skipped were skipped. Schools opened as planned in September, though roughly 15 percent of students stayed home.

There is a likely apocryphal quote attributed to Mark Twain, that “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” a more accurate description of history than George Santayana’s overly quoted axiom. The rhyming of 2020 with 1918, 1936, 1946 and 1954 can be comforting or terrifying, perhaps depending on what one does with the knowledge.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include an additional source.

Key Sources:

Anchorage Daily Times reporting, 1936, 1946, 1954.

Fortuine, Robert. Chills and Fever: Health and Disease in the Early History of Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1992.

Payne, A.M., and M.J. Freyche. “Poliomyelitis in 1954.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 15, no. 1-2 (1956): 43-121.

“Seven Brothels Quit Business.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 21, 1942, 1.

Williams, Gareth. “Paralyzed with Fear: The Story of Polio.” New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Wolfe, Robert J. “Alaska’s Great Sickness, 1900: An Epidemic of Measles and Influenza in a Virgin Soil Population.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 126, no. 2 (1982): 91-121.

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