Influenza Medicines, Then and Now

By Dr. Teri Shors and Eric Stanelle

This article is an extension of the 1918 Influenza Winnebago County, Wisconsin case study. The prior study focused on the epidemiological aspect of the disease, whereas this article delves into a pharmacological investigation encompassing the various Influenza treatments used in Wisconsin (1918-1920). It also makes a modest comparison of 1918 influenza remedies to the over the counter medications used today.

"The desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals."
Sir William Osler (1849-1919) - Physician/Professor of Medicine

Influenza is one of the oldest and most common diseases known to humankind. It can also be one of the deadliest. The name itself refers to the ancient belief that it was caused by a malign and supernatural "influence". Influenza was first described by Hippocrates in 412 B.C. and the first well-documented pandemic of influenza-like disease occurred in 1580. Since that time, 31 such possible influenza pandemics have been recorded, with three occurring in the 20th century: in 1918, 1957 and 1968. The disease today still affects large proportions of the population each year. Its ability to kill stems from the fact that the virus can mutate quickly, often producing new strains against which human beings have no immunity (1-6). When this occurs, mortality from influenza can be overwhelming.

The preceding information discusses a thorough epidemiological investigation on the effects of Spanish Influenza on a midwestern community (Winnebago County, Wisconsin) in 1918. This article reflects upon the influenza folk remedies, patent medicines advertised, prescribed drugs, and home health book suggestions used in Winnebago County or nearby Wisconsin communities during this same pandemic.

State Board of Health Recommendations

At the time of the 1918 Influenza pandemic, it wasn't known that influenza was caused by a virus. Scientists and physicians strived hard to find a therapy to treat this malady. On October 22nd, 1918, a vaccine from Mayo Hospital was distributed in Oshkosh. It was supplied "gratis." Three inoculations, a week apart, were recommended for over a period of six to nine months to "confer immunity." Many were vaccinated, but it proved ineffective in preventing the Spanish Influenza. An article entitled "Spanish Influenza--What it is and how it should be treated" was printed in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern over a half dozen times throughout the course of the 1918 pandemic (7, 8). It advised to "Go to bed and stay quiet--take a laxative--eat plenty of nourishing food--keep up your strength---nature is the 'cure.' Always call a doctor."

In 1920, influenza returned, killing less individuals, however the symptoms were as debilitating as those experienced during the 1918-1919 outbreak. The rules recommended by the New York City Board of Health were published in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern Newspaper. It stated the three rules one should observe: 1) sleep eight hours---with windows wide open; 2) eat wisely--exercise regularly--don't worry and; 3) avoid crowds and persons having colds (7). The use of Vick's Vaporub to keep the lining of air passages healthy was highly recommended. It was suggested that individuals melt the rub in a spoon at night and morning, inhale the vapors, and apply a small amount into each nostril several times a day before being exposed to crowded area.