“Entire Parkway Is To Be Open Within 5 Months,” read a headline in late December, 1916. “City Officials Make Definite Promise” to demolish everything in the way of a mile-long, blacktop boulevard stretching from City Hall to Fairmount.
Everything, that is, except for a cluster of buildings at 17th and Cherry Streets, the Medico-Chirurgical College. In time, the Parkway’s “last real impediment” would also be reduced to rubble, though not until World War and the influenza epidemic had faded into history.
Hospital beds had been in short supply, and the city, which had purchased the buildings of the Medico-Chirurgical College, turned them over to the American Red Cross. “Humanity dictated” this “shall be kept as an emergency hospital” and with wards “decorated with flags of the allies,” Red Cross staff made ready for the arrival of “the first contingent of wounded French and English soldiers from the battlefields of Europe.
As the war began to come to a close in the fall of 1918, Philadelphia’s medical community heeded a call for even more hospital beds as the Great Influenza Pandemic made its fatal foothold.
In little more than a two week period in October 1918, the city saw more than 33,000 new cases of influenza resulting in 3,900 deaths. Medical schools postponed the start of the fall semester for 3rd and 4th year students, assigning them as staff to temporary “Emergency Hospitals.” In just two days, workmen took a “half knocked down” building at the Medico- Chirurgical site and installed “temporary wooden partitions that enclosed spaces previously opened by the demolition.” A temporary boiler installed on the street provided heat, and on October 7th, water and electrical connections were restored.
According to Isaac Starr, a University of Pennsylvania medical student who later wrote of his experience, five floors of a salvaged Medico- Chirurgical building were turned into a hospital ward, each with about 25 beds assembled by the students themselves. After only a single lecture on influenza, Starr was assigned to the top floor, where he served as “head nurse” for the 4 p.m. to midnight shift.
At first, thought Starr, many patients “seemed to have sought admission chiefly because everybody in the family was sick and no one was left at home who could take care of them.” But the “clinical features of many soon changed drastically. As their lungs filled with rales the patients became short of breath and increasingly cyanotic. After gasping for several hours they became delirious and incontinent, and many died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth. After a day or two of intense struggle, they died.”
“When I returned to duty at 4 p.m,” remembered Starr, I found few whom I had seen before.” “This happened night after night. The deaths in the hospital as a whole exceeded 25% per night during the peak of the epidemic. To make room for others the bodies were being tossed from the cellar into trucks, which when filled carted them away. It was a dreadful business.”
“Seeing one case after another go to pieces after admission to our hospital made us wonder whether there was a reservoir of infection in the hospital itself that was responsible for the heavy mortality. Perhaps the masks, gowns, and hand washing did more to protect us than we had a right to expect. Certainly, with death all around us, we had every encouragement to be as careful as we could, but we were so busy and so tired that we forgot about precautions, and patient after patient coughed into our faces as we tended to their needs.”
The worst was over by the end of October. As new cases of the influenza declined medical school classes resumed. “Our lives slowly returned to normal.” recalled Starr, and the makeshift hospital wards closed on Saturday November 16, 1918.
Soon demolition crews returned. And by February 1919, they delivered on the promise of a completed boulevard. The city would soon have its mile-long stretch of fresh blacktop, a “Stately Parkway, Dream of Years.”
What would Philadelphia make of it? That’s the story of the next 100 years.
[Sources: Philadelphia in the World War, 1914-1919, (Published for the Philadelphia War History Committee 1922); Isaac Starr, MD, Influenza in 1918: Recollections of the Epidemic in Philadelphia. Annals of Internal Medicine, July 18, 2006 Vol 145, No 2, p. 139; in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Entire Parkway is to be open within 5 months,” December 28, 1916; “Red Cross Gets Hospital,“ December 15, 1917; “Foreign Wounded Here Within Month,“ July 19, 1917; “Parkway Project Nears Completion,” August 31, 1917; “Datesman Prepares to Finish Parkway from 17th to 18th,” September 30, 1917; “Emergency Hospital No. 2 will be opened at once in the buildings of the old Medico-Chirugical College,” October 7, 1918; “Holds Influenza is at its Crest,” October 8, 1918; “Stately Parkway, Dream of Years, Almost Complete,” February 16, 1919.]