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For Petaluma, lessons from a century-old pandemic

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The Friday before Christmas of 1918, Gladys Goodwin came down with a cold while commuting home to Petaluma on the electric train from Sebastopol, where she worked as a secretary for the Western Apple Vinegar Company.

Disembarking at the Petaluma train depot, she walked the two blocks to her family’s home at East D and Edith streets. It was the last time she would leave the house. Within days her cold developed into pneumonia, and in a week she was dead, a victim of the influenza pandemic.

It had been two months since the pandemic hit Petaluma, and just one month since the mandatory mask order and social distancing restrictions shuttering all theaters, dance halls, libraries, schools and churches had been lifted. Like many others, with the steep decline in the infection rate, Gladys Goodwin was looking forward to a relatively normal Christmas, especially in the aftermath of Armistice Day, which had marked the official end of World War I on November 11.

According to records kept by the California Board of Health, the two-month influenza outbreak had been devastating to Sonoma County, with 18,635 reported cases and 258 related deaths. Twenty-four of those deaths occurred in Petaluma, whose population stood at 7,550.

California as a whole reported 230,845 cases and 13,340 deaths. Pneumonia, which became the largest secondary infection of the influenza, killed another 5,285. Together, the two diseases resulted in a 37% increase in the state’s mortality rate in 1918.

Gladys Goodwin was a bright, attractive, 25-year-old with a sunny disposition. Born in Petaluma, she was one of 12 children of Captain Billy Goodwin, who piloted scow schooners up and down the Petaluma River, and his wife Jennie. After local officials lifted social distancing restrictions just before Thanksgiving, she undoubtedly joined others afflicted with cabin fever in packing the city’s movie houses, theaters, parks and churches.

It turned out to be a temporary reprieve. A second wave of influenza came at Christmas, claiming Goodwin as one of its first victims. It spiked in January with 69,053 cases in California, leading to 3,500 deaths. Petaluma health officials reinstated social distancing protocols, rescinding them once the second infection wave plunged at the end of February. Then came a third, relatively minor wave in April, forcing the closure of Petaluma schools for the remainder of the school year.

By the time summer arrived, California had experienced another 99,058 cases of influenza and pneumonia since January, resulting in 5,465 deaths, 24 of them in Petaluma. Gladys Goodwin was among those most vulnerable, as Californians most ravaged by the influenza were in the 25-to-34 age group. Their deaths dramatically lowered the state’s average life expectancy from 52 years in 1917 to 40.6 years in 1918.

State health officials reported feeling impotent in the face of the rapidly spreading infection, resulting in confusion and a lack of proper utilization of the scanty means of control they had available. Their efforts were further complicated by “slackers” practicing civil disobedience or merely adopting a lax attitude toward social distancing and wearing masks.

Health officials also deplored the useless and misguided efforts to check the pandemic, including the use of dubious tonics, whiskey prescribed by doctors, and snake oil concoctions. California historian Brendan Riley cited accounts of mothers telling their children to stuff salt up their noses and wear bags of camphor around their necks, and of a 4-year-old girl in Oregon said to have recovered after being dosed by her mother with onion syrup and then covered in raw onions for three days.

The winter of 1920 brought with it a fourth and final wave of the disease. Although its mortality rate was half that of the previous winter’s wave, Petaluma was harder hit than other cities its size, reporting 319 cases and five deaths by February of 1920. The city health board issued another ban on social gatherings, once again closing theaters, dance halls, schools and churches. But by the time the wave subsided, local influenza deaths in 1920 totaled 17.

Although a vaccine was discovered that reduced pneumonia as a secondary infection, no vaccine for the influenza itself was ever found. Instead, the pandemic eventually trailed off. Between 1918 and 1920, California experienced 20,801 influenza deaths, and another 10,424 related pneumonia deaths. Petaluma’s combined death total was 66.

Whether the past serves as any sort of prologue in how the current COVID-19 pandemic plays out remains to be seen. Hopefully, medical researchers will succeed where their predecessors failed a century ago in developing a vaccine.

(Historian John Sheehy is author of “On a River Winding Home: Stories and Visions of the Petaluma River Watershed.”)

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