Walter Ney Keener: Editorials on the “Spanish flu” in Durham (1918–20)

Annotated by a third cousin twice removed, with timeline.

Wake Forest Law Class of 1903, with Walter Ney Keener seated on the far right, first row — Public Domain.

“What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest — health, integrity, purity (if you like) — is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.” — Albert Camus (1947)

In 1918 Walter Ney (“Frank”) Keener from Lincolnton, North Carolina ended his “whirlwind nine-year tour of the state’s dailies” and returned to Durham to become the editor of the Morning Herald. Matriculated in law at Wake Forest College (Class of 1903), Frank represented Lincoln County in the state legislature for one term (1907–08) before abandoning both politics and his legal practice and becoming the city editor of the Raleigh Times around 1909–11. He was also the managing and city editor of the Durham Sun (1912–13), city editor of the Charlotte Chronicle (1913–14), editor of the High Point Enterprise (1914–16), and editor of the Wilmington Dispatch (1917–18).

According to Roy Parker Jr, “[f]ew journalists saw as much of North Carolina as Keener.” Frank was “[a] man of wide interests and strong opinions about his community,” and “[h]is editorials were described as ‘forceful and effective.’ Raleigh's News & Observer said, ‘Frank Keener was frank, independent and courageous, with a deep aversion to sham and pretense wherever it appeared” (N. C. Press Foundation, 1998). He was also my third cousin twice removed, and I’ve been researching and writing about him for several years now as part of my genealogy and family history research. It has also been my great pleasure to have connected with his wonderful granddaughter, who is a retired teacher and accomplished artist, and I have been corresponding with her by email for a while now.

While in COVID-19 lockdown, I also decided to take a look at what Frank wrote about the “1918” pandemic of influenza (often and probably wrongly labeled “Spanish flu”) caused by the H1N1 virus which infected a quarter of the world’s population and killed tens of millions of people worldwide, with intermittent local quarantines through at least 1920. Note that opinions by a paper’s editors aren’t usually signed, as is the case here. So it’s possible Frank didn’t actually write some of these pieces, but they sure sound like him based on my research.

In April of 1917 the United States entered the First World War and a draft was implemented in June, after which the army began training recruits at 32 large camps across the country (including Camp Greene in Charlotte). According to the CDC’s timeline, outbreaks began in March with more than 100 cases at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas. The first mention of the disease appeared in a weekly public health report on 5 April 1918, but the second (more deadly) wave of flu peaked between September and November. The following editorials were written (presumably) by Frank for the Morning Herald during and after this “second wave.” In a few cases, statements by public health officials or others on the paper’s editorial board are included for additional context as noted.

Editorials by Walter Ney “Frank” Keener Sr. (1918–19)

2 October 1918: “Spanish Influenza

Spanish influenza continues its spread through North Carolina, and is giving the state and local health authorities considerable concern. The indications are that the epidemic is on a rising tide, and we may look for a more serious situation before it is controlled. The disease is one of the most stubborn the medical profession has had to deal with, seemingly being unsusceptible to any treatment so far administered. It is nothing more, say the doctors, than a severe form of the well known “grip” which has infected itself upon people for years, and under the name of “bad cold” has been one of the most persistent of human ills that has come down through time. Under its new name, given it because it first attracted attention last spring when it developed severity in Spain, it seems to be a more open invitation for pneumonia than its predecessors grip or bad cold.

There is no need for becoming panicky over the presence of the disease, but it is necessary that the public use all available measures of precaution against contracting it. It is very contagious, and if the public will insist on gathering in crowds the problem of controlling the disease will be extremely difficult. Avoid public gatherings, or insanitary places, use the simple remedies for colds, and the danger of contracting influenza will be greatly reduced. While the threatened epidemic is not one to cause undue alarm, it is absolutely necessary that every precaution be made against its coming with its attendant illness and possible loss of life. It is a matter requiring handling in a common sense way, and when this view is generally accepted we may expect to see the disease controlled.

4 October 1918: Untitled

If the influenza threat is enough to produce drastic measures against its spread, these measures should be made uniform in application. A crowd is a crowd whether in a church, theatre, or school room.

6 October 1918: “Meeting the Situation

Action by the local health authorities last night, ordering the closing of all the school [sic] along with the other places of assembly was to be expected following the change of front by the state and federal health authorities, though there are some who fail to see the wisdom for such as drastic action. A few days ago the state board of health, and we believe the United States department of health, fully agreed with the view, announced that it was not necessary to close the schools on account of the epidemic of influenza, declaring the belief that the situation could be handled more satisfactorily if the schools remained open where the pupils could be under the constant watch of medical guardians. Despite the fact that there was considerable pressure brought to bear on them, the local health authorities in their original order closing up the churches, theatres and other places of public gathering, declined to include the schools. This policy was in strict accord with the health authorities of both the state and the nation.

Friday, however, the health officials of the state, through Dr. W. S. Rankin, and the United States department of health, through Surgeon General Rupert Blue, retracted their first statement, and now say that where there is an epidemic of influenza the schools should be closed along with other assembly places. Wisdom dictates that these new instructions should complied with. Doubtless there have been important developments in the epidemic leading the health officials to right-about-face on the school closing question, and if they say it is the thing to do, let’s do it. If there is anything else they think necessary to be done, let’s do it also. We are facing an epidemic of seriousness, and it is the duty of all to render every aid in stamping it out.

There are still some who think that it is not necessary to close the schools and these have a good argument in the situation at Wilmington. In that city the epidemic is admittedly the worst in the state, something like one of our every four of the population having had the disease, yet the schools had not even opened for the year’s work when the outbreak came. Certainly the spread there cannot be laid at the door of the schools. But, that is a matter of argument, and this is a time for action, not argument.

13 October 1918: Untitled

The only fault that can be found with the precautions taken here against the spread of influenza is that they should have been adopted earlier.

15 October 1918: “More Deadly Than Bullets

As an evidence of the tremendous toll influenza and its follow-up, pneumonia, has exacted, a comparison of the number of lives lost in the training camps in less than a month’s time with the number of men killed in the year of war shows that the disease is more fatal than German bullets. The total number of deaths in army training camps since September 13, most of which were due to influenza was reported Saturday at more than nine thousand, while the total number of men killed in action, including those lost at sea, was less than nine thousand. War, with all its horrors, and with the modern methods of wholesale killing, is not able to take the human toll in a year that the epidemic has done in a month. Yet we dread war, and take chances with influenza.

16 October 1918: Untitled

If fresh air and sunshine were effective preventives against influenza, we just can’t understand why disease should be so prevalent in North Carolina.

17 October 1918: “Unselfish Service

One of the most magnificent displays of unselfishness seen in Durham county in ages was witnessed yesterday afternoon in response to a request from the chairman of the board of county commissioners every teacher in the county volunteered to render any service in his or her power in combatting the epidemic of influenza in the rural districts of the county. These teachers tendered their services without reward or hope of reward other than the satisfaction of having done their full duty toward humanity in this time of affliction. Their self-sacrificing spirit is the more beautiful because it comes from a body of hard-worked, poorly paid people who have been thrown out of work by the epidemic closing the schools and depriving them of their meagre salaries. This action should arouse such a sentiment throughout the county in their favor as to influence the board of education to see that the teachers do not lose their salaries for the time they are forced to suspend their duties as teachers. A sense of fairness demands that the teachers be paid for the schools are closed, and it is believed that the board of education will readily recognize this and do the right thing, both as a matter of justice and a recognition of the services rendered in fighting the epidemic.

18 October 1918: “Epidemic Waning

It is an encouraging report the state board of health sends out concerning the influenza epidemic, and the belief is expressed that the wave of affliction has passed its crest and with a continuation of the precautionary measures by the people it should be a thing of the past in a week or two. This does not mean, the board warns, that there will be no further spread of influenza or that there will be no more fatalities, but there will be a gradual decrease in both until it finally entirely ceases.

Wilmington, where the disease first made serious inroads in this slate, is rapidly emerging from the epidemic, and the churches will be permitted to resume usual services next Sunday and the schools will open next week. But the city has passed through a serious time. It is estimated that the number of cases of influenza there during the past four or five weeks exceeded 10,000, probably reaching 12,000, and the number of deaths is reported at 117. Business was practically paralyzed for nearly a mouth, and the suffering was intense in many in stances until the relief work became organized. It was a hard fight, with science and its organized help finally winning.

Other places in the state are yet in the midst of serious epidemic, but on the whole the outlook is encouraging for early relief. Of course precautionary measures must be observed for several weeks if the disease is to be effectually banished.

23 October 1918: “Bboze [sic] and Grip

As was to have been expected, the action of Dr. Charles W. Stiles, who had charge of the federal government’s activities in fighting the influenza epidemic in this state, is asking for and recommending whiskey for use in combatting the disease, has brought forth unfavorable criticism from several quarters. But this criticism pours off of the federal health officer like water from a duck’s back. In a public statement he takes the whole responsibility for adopting the use of whiskey in treating pneumonia, and says that he and he alone is the man to whom all criticism should be addressed. He says that his main object in advocating whiskey as a stimulant was to save human life, and that in serious times like this mere matters of personal preference and prejudice have no place. He says that in treating pneumonia it is necessary to use stimulants to carry the patient through, and that the supply of drugs of that character was found short and in danger of giving out completely. In some instances, he states, it was 24 hours before prescriptions calling for these stimulating drugs could be filled, and, as everyone knows, 24 hours means life or death in pneumonia cases. When confronted with this condition he did not hesitate in asking for whiskey to be given patients, declares that the only regret he has is that he did not have 150 gallons instead of 50. For his action he makes no apology, and by so doing insists that his position was the best available under the circumstances.

When Dr. Stiles first made his request for whiskey to give pneumonia patients, he stated that when properly used whiskey was a valuable stimulant in treating that disease, and added a warning that excessive use of it was extremely dangerous, as habitual users usually had a hard time in battling with the ravages of the disease. It being his judgment that whiskey was desirable in treatment of the epidemic, and having been entrusted with the difficult task of fighting the disease, he did what his judgment dictated. He is standing by his judgment, and virtually tells those who find fault with him on his action that they have a right to believe what they want, but as for him he will do what he thinks best, regardless of their opinion.

The doctor is to be admired for his frankness, at least, and it would seem to come with poor grace and appreciation for the people for whom he is now and for the past several weeks has, labored so hard and faithfully, to adversely criticize his actions.

27 October 1918: Untitled

It is mighty hard to convince the fellow who has had influenza that only about 30 to 40 per cent. of the people were stricken with the disease. He is willing to wager that from 90 to 100 per cent. had it.

31 October 1918: Untitled

One benefit of the influenza epidemic is that it has put political speakers out of commission.

2 November 1918: “Good Work

While the epidemic of Spanish influenza in Durham has not entirely passed, It is well in hand, and unless there is an unforeseen fresh outbreak, which is improbable, another week should find the epidemic at the stage where It can be said to be a thing of the past. This city was hit hard by the disease, but it in comparison with other cities it escaped the severest ravages. Both the number of cases and number of deaths were less in proportion than in other places of a similar size. This splendid showing is due to the prompt and efficient organization effected by the health authorities in conjunction with various local organizations and individuals. At first there was some inclination to pay little heed to the disease. But it was soon made apparent that a serious situation would be created unless there was an effectively organized warfare made against the threatened epidemic, and as soon as this necessity was seen there was no further hesitancy, and in a very short while there was one of the most efficient organizations to be found anywhere at work. The result has been that Durham has not suffered nearly so much as some other places.

It was just another example of the spirit to be found in this city, too. Let something come along requiring a cooperative effort, and if it has merit it will soon get the necessary support. That is the kind of spirit that has made Durham what it is in the short time of a half century, and it is this same spirit, except greatly increased, that is going to make the next half century more remarkable in the history of Durham than the first half.

19 November 1918: Order of the Board of Health

The editorial page includes a notice to the people of Durham county and city about “clean up work” commencing, noting that “[t]he best obtainable figures show that we have had 5,000 cases and possibly more, with 80 or 90 deaths” while cautioning that, “[t]here are still many cases and will be for some time.”

20 December 1918: “Use Precautions

The Influenza situation is such as to call for continued precautions on the part of the general public and the health officials. While there is no epidemic and this city is not going through with a condition as serious as several weeks ago, or as serious as many other North Carolina cities at this time, there is no assurance that there will not be a recurrence of the epidemic. The way to prevent another outbreak is to adopt rules and regulations to meet the threatened situation. There is a disposition in some quarters to ignore proper precautions for fear that somebody will lose a nickel, and there are some few who would endanger the life and health of their fellow citizens for the sake of a few dollars. Dollars lost today can be regained tomorrow, but a life lost is gone forever.

22 December 1918: “A Wise Action

The county board of education acted wisely in extending the Christmas holiday period for the rural schools to January 6, making the vacation period two weeks instead of one, as first ordered. This action was taken because of a certain amount of Spanish influenza still lingering in the county and is for the purpose of giving ample time to either stamp out the disease or reduce it to a minimum. The board properly took the position that it would be better to close the schools two weeks with the probability of having a better attendance at the reopening than to close only one week with the chance of having a poor attendance when work is resumed.

In this connection it would be a good idea for the health authorities in the city to take advantage of the holidays to tighten up again. Influenza, while probably in a milder form than the outbreak several weeks ago, is still too prevalent in the city, and few precautions are in effect to prevent its spread. The situation is such that it could mighty easily develop into another serious epidemic. There are probably several hundred of cases here, but little, if anything, is being done to prevent a spread. The city authorities might follow the example of the county school authorities and the lid might be generally put on again during the holidays without working any especial hardship on business.

25 December 1918: Frank “Has Influenza

The Durham Morning Herald reports that, “[f]riends of W. N. Keener, editor of the Morning Herald, will be sorry to hear that he is sick at his home on Morris street, suffering from an attack of the Spanish influenza.” The editorial page contains a message from chairman of the board of health titled, “INFLUENZA IS STILL WITH US: What Are You Doing To Prevent Its Spreading?

29 December 1918: Untitled

It is estimated that about 20,000,000 men lost their lives in four years of war. The London Times announces the Spanish influenza has killed 6,000,000 during the past year. The great kille [sic] of human beings is not the gun that shoots 72 miles, poison gas or shrapnel, but a living creature, a disease germ invisible to the eye, invisible even to the microscope, that can kill in one year twice as many as the greatest war can kill in four years.

12 Janurary 1919: “County Faces a ‘Flu’ Epidemic

Outbreak of Spanish influenza during the past few days has been in excess of the average for the past few weeks, it was learned Saturday. One physician reported 24 cases on the farm of Maynard Magnum, located southwest of New Hope creek.

The new outbreak, it is said by the health department officials, is largely in the county, very few cases being reported In the city. No reason for the renewal of the disease can be given.

25 Janurary 1919: Untitled

From hysteria to apathy is the change in the public since last fall with regard to the influenza situation. When the epidemic first appeared officials and citizens usually overdid the thing in trying to stamp it out. Now they are doing practically nothing. Maybe later on they will strike a happy medium and do the right thin [sic] to either stamp out or reduce to a minimum the ravages of the disease.

7 February 1919: “Durham Gets Rid Of ‘Flu’ Cases

Indications Are That the Disease Has Practically Spent Itself
Durham has practically rid herself of Spanish influenza, according to Dr. Arch Cheatham, superintendent of health. There are now less than 50 cases of the disease in the entire county and city, according to best reports obtainable. The health department, Dr. Cheatham says, is unable to say whether the disease has been permanently blocked, but indications point to its entire elimination.

Although Durham passed through the epidemic second to none in the state so far as the number of cases is concerned, this death rate has been materially lower than in a majority of cases. The health department officials attribute their success in handling the situation to the fact that they were prepared before the epidemic really was underway, and also to the fine cooperation on the part of city and county officials, as well as the people.

Warm weather which may be expected within a few weeks should rid the county of the remaining cases of influenza in the opinion of Dr. Cheatham.

As the CDC timeline notes, a “third wave of influenza occurs in the winter and spring of 1919, killing many more” before it “subsides in the summer.” However, Frank apparently shifted his coverage of the epidemic primarily to the news pages after February and doesn’t appear to have editorialized much about the subject after then — except for periodic warnings about it still lingering about...

For a more up-to-date editorial perspective on North Carolina’s response to the “Spanish flu” and its relevance today, check out this piece from the News & Observer in Raleigh...

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Wilhelm Kühner

Wilhelm Kühner

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Pruning the “tangled thicket” of Kühner (Keener) Genealogie in Amerika and reflecting on its relevance to current events.