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History Advocates for Wearing Masks during a Pandemic

Twitter surfaced a tweet to me which had some newspaper clippings during the 1918 flu pandemic (aka “Spanish Flu”):

The tweet didn’t cite the sources, but the clipping mentioning Portland jumped out at me since that’s my home. To find the source I googled for [“wearing masks in portland might save a life. it might save hundreds. if it would save just one, is there anybody who would object”] and I got back one result from Newspapers.com:

The source is The Oregon Daily Journal, a daily newspaper which ran from 1902 to 1982 in Portland, Oregon. The snippet comes from page 4 of the issue from Saturday, January 18, 1919. The full quote is illuminating:

FLU AND MASKS

More people have died from flu than were killed during the same period in the war.

The number of Americans who have died from flu is several times as large as the number of Americans killed in battle in France.

“I am satisfied that the universal use of the mask would cut the disease down to practically nothing in Portland in less than 10 days’ time,” is the statement from Dr. Sommer, director general of the anti-flu campaign. For the forenoon of yesterday the number of new cases and deaths reported was among the six highest days recorded since the epidemic struck Portland. Yesterday showed the largest number of deaths since November 4.

In San Francisco the average of deaths per day during October was over 40. The universal wearing of masks was then required, and within three weeks the average dropped to seven.

Wearing masks in Portland might save a life. It might save hundreds.

If it would save just one, is there anyone who would object?

That could have been written yesterday!

On the same page of the newspaper, I found yet another another striking reflection:

The painter knows best how to mix his paints. It is the lawyer, not the teamster that knows what is in the law books. Nobody studies flu so much as the doctors. If they say masks, on what authority can a street cleaner contradict them?

Listen to the experts!

The first quote comes from Dr. E. A. Sommer of the Portland School Board who also led the Consolidated Health Board (i.e. “director general of the anti-flu campaign”). In the Portland essay of The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918: A Digital Encyclopedia, I found another quote of his which is also cited as coming from The Oregon Daily Journal a couple weeks later:

The biggest thing we have had to fight in the influenza epidemic has been apathy, or perhaps the careless selfishness of the public.

“Carelessness Is Greatest Cause of Spread of Flu,” Oregon Daily Journal, 2 Feb. 1919, 15.

This is still true today, a century later.

Will we learn from those who came before us? Wear a mask. Save lives.

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