Fighting Disease at Funston

On this day, a hundred years ago, Grandpa was confined to his barracks. He and his entire company were under a medical quarantine. While the sick went to the hospital, the remainder—those exposed—remained inside, under guard.

November 11, 1917

I am a little bit sick this afternoon but just tired I guess. We had some sad time here today, two of our boys died last night, both from Maysville: Rutherford and McElwain. The McElwain boy’s father was here this morning. I sure feel sorry for the sad stricken people but don’t know who will be next. But all we can do is take it.

The army thought it had taken the necessary precautions to prevent disease at the training camps. The doctors understood the importance of good hygiene and established standards of cleanliness for the men and their surroundings. They checked for medical conditions when the recruits arrived at camp and quickly sent those considered ill to the hospital. They vaccinated against typhoid fever, the disease that killed many during the recent Spanish-American War.

Soldiers Cartoon

Printed in the camp newspaper, Trench and Camp, Nov. 17, 1917. Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

But the army failed to keep airborne diseases under control. During the fall of 1917, Camp Funston experienced epidemics of spinal meningitis and respiratory illnesses that led to pneumonia. In a report issued after the war, The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, 1923-29, the authors concluded that, in the case of meningitis, this “barracks disease” was caused in part by the “rapid mobilization of enormous numbers of untrained, unseasoned men, from all sections of the country, and their subsequent, intimate contact in large camps, provided ideal condition for the dissemination” of this disease. The authors also noted that meningitis, which had a high mortality rate, led to “feeling(s) of apprehension or alarm.” (The Medical Department, Vol IX Communicable Diseases, Chapter 4, p. 204)

November 3, 1917

I expect you wondered why you did not get a letter, we had orders not to send any mail out last night, but told us we could write if we left them open and they will disinfect [them] . . . I don’t think there is any danger but burn this as soon as you get it read.

In cases of meningitis, every person exposed had to submit to what Grandpa called a “diagnosis,” a culture gathered with a long nasal swab.

November 8, 1917

Had another case of meningitis last night so that means ten days more. The base hospital took another diagnosis today, ran the stick about a foot in my nose. I didn’t know I had such a hole in my head.

The army began, during the fall, to reconsider the usefulness of the quarantines. The blanket confinement curtailed the training and freedom of activity of too many healthy soldiers. So, in December, Camp Funston focused on two groups: those already diagnosed (and treated at the base hospital) and those who had come in contact with an ill comrade. Those “germ carriers” were sent to a specially erected tent city.

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As shown in this postcard Grandpa sent, the tents covered a large area and collectively became known as the “detention camp.” The tents may have isolated the “germ carriers,” but they did so at the expense of comfort. The cold Kansas winds made the interiors freezing cold. Even in the barracks, the windows were kept open, checked nightly by guards to enforce what the army believed to be good hygiene. Grandpa had a different take on the practice.

November 25, 1917

Sure is cold in the barrack, they make us keep all windows open all the time, going to freeze up the germs I guess.

During November, Grandpa’s confinement didn’t stop the many letters and gifts he received from home. His mother sent him cake. Grandma sent candy, stationery and stamps, and a perfect gift for those cold winter days: a hand-knit sweater.

November 17, 1917

Say I got the box with the sweater, scarf and wash goods, sure was fine. I have the sweater on now. The boys sure did brag on it.

He would need that sweater in a few weeks, when he was taken to the detention camp, and then the base hospital, suspected of having meningitis.

Illness and injury became the bookends of my grandfather’s military service. He was confined to his barracks in November 1917. A year later, in November 1918, he was confined to a hospital in France, treated for a battle wound that almost cost him his life.

 

 

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