Los Gatos and the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic: Part 2

The Oaks Sanitarium Los Gatos, CA
An ad for the Oaks Sanitarium near Los Gatos placed in the California State Journal of Medicine’s 1918 edition.

Today we think of Los Gatos as being a town with plenty of medical services and we’re very proud of the healing and life saving work that is done there, especially now. But at the start of the 1900s this was just a pretty, agricultural town.

Only after a 1905 British medical publication professed that Los Gatos, CA had one of the most healthful climates in the world did thing start to change, and eventually a hospital for tuberculosis, the Oaks Sanitarium, was built and advertised to meet growing needs.

There were very few doctors in town, so locals who fought severe cases of influenza during the pandemic likely went to the clinics in more populated areas like nearby San Jose. State documents show that additional nursing and medical services were supplied to San Jose and other Bay Area cities.

There were many brave individuals who generously gave their time and efforts to help those in need both during the war and the influenza pandemic which immediately followed. We have details on some of them because their stories had tragic endings and made the news.

The Santa Cruz Evening News on November 2, 1918 remembers Miss Helen C Houghton: “one of the best known and accomplished trained nurses around San Francisco bay, passed away in Berkeley yesterday, having given her life in the performance of her humanitarian duties at the bedside of an influenza sufferer. She contracted the disease and quickly died.” She was survived by multiple siblings including a brother in Los Gatos. Other stories have happier endings. San Jose State Normal School (now San Jose State University) closed twice during the pandemic but students and teachers didn’t get a moment’s rest as many went to work for the cause, whichever one it was at the moment.

“The demands of the past few years for money and time and effort have been so heavy that [in place of social activities] has been unusual activity along the line of war work,—Red Cross, Belgian and Armenian and Serbian relief, and other social service work of any description that beckoned. During the epidemic of influenza last fall, the women of the faculty took entire charge of the diet kitchen in connection with the emergency hospital, and practically the entire personnel of the club was engaged either in this part of the work or in the actual nursing. Later, individual members of the club worked to the verge of exhaustion in the hospital operated by the Normal faculty.” (1919 La Torre, 83).

The Normal Hospital during the Pandemic
The Normal Hospital as it was operating during the winter of 1918-1919, published in La Torre 1919.

The Normal Hospital

The Normal Hospital, as they christened it, was a furnished house on 12th Street in San Jose rented for the care and isolation of boarding house residents who contracted flu. It was used from December 10th to February 28th and “During this time twenty-one influenza patients were cared for, all making a rapid and complete recovery.” (1919 La Torre, 86). The author remarks that the emergency hospital stopped the spread of the disease through the school and helped to prevent more school closures. She insists there is a need for “a permanent instead of an emergency hospital.” (87). In March of 2015, San Jose State completed the construction of a new 3 story on-campus health center to serve the health and wellness needs of students, staff, and faculty.

Influenza Pandemic Revisited

The 1918-1920 influenza hasn’t been completely locked in the annals of history. Scientists have studied the virus and others over the last century to better understand and better prepare us for the current (and future) viral dangers. One intrepid pathologist, a Dr. Johan V Hultin, had a lifelong interest in tracking the 1918 virus, but it was late in his career and only after retiring from his practice at Los Gatos Community Hospital (now El Camino Hospital of Los Gatos) that he made strides against that virus. In 1997 at the age of 72, Dr. Hultin repeated an expedition he had made early in his career to Brevig Mission, Alaska. There he successfully excavated samples so well preserved in the cold tundra that they still contained 1918 virus genes. This groundbreaking discovery helped scientists piece together the full sequence of the hemagglutinin “HA” gene for the 1918 virus, and provided more insight as to how the virus originated and evolved.

 

Los Gatos and the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic: Part 1

Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases October 1918 regarding the flu pandemic
“Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases,” states the graphic used in an informational article published across various newspapers in October 1918

Los Gatos Pandemic Then and Now

Today, Los Gatos is a bustling town of approximately 30,000 people with booming industry including high tech and an ever-expanding medical industry. We face a crisis locally and nationally, and do our part to help halt the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic by sheltering in place, working (or studying) from home, and supporting our essential workers.

The current pandemic has often been compared to the influenza of 1918 – 1920, but a lot has changed over the last 100 years. In 1920, Los Gatos’ total population was 2,317 (less than 10% of the current population) and it had only grown in size by about 85 people over the decade since the prior census! However small, this town has its own tales to tell, so I’ve dug up some history to present to you a retrospective on Los Gatos and the 1918-1920 Influenza pandemic.

Rolling back the clock, historic documents point to issues with masks and non compliance during the Spanish flu pandemic. Looking through 100+ year old Bay Area newspapers, you can review official city and county documents with numerous paragraphs lamenting the lack of progress on the “Joint Highway District”.  In particular, there are gripes regarding the completion of a state highway between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos which some locals were banking their hopes on during the “disappointing experiences which this country passed through at the time” (Santa Cruz Evening News V 24 #113 Sept 13, 1919). Apparently, getting to the beach was a mood lifter then, too!

Read moreLos Gatos and the 1918-1920 Influenza Pandemic: Part 1

Los Gatos History Walk

May 10, 2007

Los Gatos History Museum on Tait Avenue, Los GatosSunday afternoon, Jim and I got to the History Walk (2nd annual) a little too late to make the 1:30 tour – they were sold out. But we were in luck. The goodnatured volunteers kept their costumes on a little longer and tacked on a 2pm show for us and a few other stragglers. We were very, very grateful.

Dan Turkus, one of the guides, explaining the "code" used with the fire bell in Los Gatos CA for the History WalkI was certain that the performance would be great, and I wasn’t disappointed.

What I did not expect was to have so many “blanks filled in”. There were bits and pieces of history that I knew, but they didn’t all fit together quite right. The docents did a great job of helping me to make sense of these odds and ends.

I had never known, for instance, why there was a resevoir up on the hill near the Jesuit Novitiate. Turns out it had everything to do with making Forbes Mill profitable back in the day. (That resevoir has not been used in awhile and is now being turned into housing. That’s for another post.)

Stone House (University Avenue) owners Juliet Panter & Janet Goodman opened their Los Gatos home to the tourThat kind of thing.

It was the most fun I’ve ever had learning history.

I highly recommend this tour to anyone who loves Los Gatos, and I expect to go back again next year.

A wonderful article was done on this event by The Los Gatos Observer. I had planned to share many more photos and a more detailed explanation here, but the LGO did a great job with better photos – so have a look at the review there and enjoy!