On October 1, 1918 the Surgeon General of the United States called for an emergency response to the severe influenza epidemic spreading across the nation. The American Red Cross had been providing the military with nurses since the country entered World War I the previous year and they had already began recruiting thousands of nurses to care for soldiers during the summer of 1918.

The requirements for a prospective nurse were stringent. Only women between 24-35 years of age were considered. They had to be unwed, healthy and willing to roll up their sleeves for hard labor.  A high school diploma, a graduate certificate from a qualified training school as well as two years of first hand experience in a hospital were mandatory qualifications.  Each candidate was expected to sign a year long contract and to agree to travel wherever they were needed. In concern for the security of the troops and equity of care, no nurse could have Austrian or German heritage, and none could be the daughter, wife or sister of a current serviceman. 

The need for nurses was amplified by early September when the “Spanish Flu” struck Connecticut and the first known cases in the state were registered in New London at the Naval Hospital. Over 100 patients were treated at that medical center with many progressing into fatal pneumonia. The contagion was carried into the civilian population easily by the thousands of servicemen boarding in local households.  It didn’t take long for the flu to spread from this port to other cities along the Connecticut coastline.

A Young Easton Nurse Answers the Call

One young nurse from Easton was just preparing to deploy, and her picture was published in the Bridgeport Telegram, with her nursing cap announcing the honor of being chosen to serve. Her parents, Oliver and Anna Gustavson, certainly had reason to be proud of her accomplishment. Born in 1893, Agnes Elvira grew up on her father’s farm on Banks Road and had been living in Bridgeport and working as a nurse.  

Even before our country joined the war, Agnes had been drawn to the medical field and she was an ideal candidate for the Red Cross drive.  She was single, 25 years of age, and received a degree from the Bridgeport School of Nursing in 1916.  Registered through Franklin Street Nurse’s Station, she also had the required work experience needed.  Of Swedish descent, she qualified for all of the exacting military specifications, particularly that no male relatives were in active service.  As farmers, the men in her family were considered essential workers on the home front.  

Agnes didn’t have to travel too far from her home.  She was to report for duty at the United States Army Hospital no. 16 in New Haven Connecticut.  During the war, the medical needs of the armed forces necessitated the opening of many additional hospitals and this particular facility was located in what is now West Haven on Campbell Avenue at the current sight of the Veterans Administration Medical Center.  

Originally constructed in 1916 as the William Witt Winchester Memorial Tuberculosis Hospital by Sarah Winchester, the hospital was to honor her late husband who died of the disease in 1881.  Perhaps the medical community should be grateful that she did not complete the building before the United States government leased the site for use as a military hospital. Sarah is in fact the same woman infamously responsible for building the mysterious and reportedly haunted Winchester House in San Jose, Calif.  Under the military, the hospital maintained focus on the treatment of tuberculosis and was outfitted with the latest x-ray machine and several open air wards recommended for infectious lung diseases. 

 When it first opened in April 1918, the 200 beds available were immediately filled.  By May, an additional building campaign enlarged the hospital’s capacity by 500 more. On September 5, these extra accommodations were ready, and they would be desperately needed in the following weeks.

United States Army General Hospital no. 16, Western View, 1918

When Agnes arrived on October 1, she would have been allocated a place in one of the dormitories.  Unfortunately, it seems clear from the archives she barely had time to unpack when the flu pandemic hit hard.  In addition to hundreds of tuberculosis patients, the hospital was overloaded with victims of the flu.  So many were admitted that by Oct. 8, all the nurses had to give up their own beds for the sick. Even the administration building for the Red Cross had to serve as a makeshift ward.  

From October to November the hospital struggled to maintain care. Crowded conditions with overworked staff and little effective treatment left the nurses frustrated. Despite all their challenges, the facility cared for almost two thousand patients.  In total the records indicate 267 were diagnosed with the flu and they lost 106 patients. Though the medical staff worried about the tuberculosis patients easily succumbing to the influenza, these men seemed to have an immunity and none of them died from the flu. Though with the exhausting work conditions, six staff members did fall ill.  

By Armistice Day on November 11, there must have been a bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow.  Memorials for servicemen who died were followed by celebrations for the war’s end and patriotic rejoicing filled the hospital.  By November 16, Victory Day, all the influenza wards were returned to their original purpose as nurse’s barracks and administrative offices.  The flu continued on for several weeks, but the overwhelming crisis had passed.

The Pandemic Rages On Back Home

Back home in Fairfield County, the pandemic had also quickly escalated, and it became clear that the requirements for nurses would have to be adjusted. The age restrictions were loosened as well as the training requirements.  When the hospital wards filled with patients, nurses of all ages from students to retired matrons were called to help.  We know that even two of Agnes’ own younger sisters, Lillian and Minnie Gustavson, received their nursing certificates and served in Bridgeport where the epidemic was particularly severe.  

The city’s health department worked with the Red Cross, the Department of Charities, and the Visiting Nurse Association  to formulate a plan to deal with the emergency.  Volunteers canvased door to door, searching for able bodied women throughout the city and local towns.  Articles in the papers urged women to join the many training programs available, especially at the newly opened YWCA. The chairwoman of the Bridgeport Red Cross directly pleaded to newspaper readers for “any trained or untrained woman who can help fight this disease.”  

American Red Cross Campaign Advertisement Recording Materials Collected, Bridgeport 1918

Women responded to the crisis in the thousands.  Already mobilized through civic groups such as the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association, they volunteered their energy and resources. Funds collected paid for ambulance transport, linens, clothing and food.  Women were tasked in the hospitals in any service they could provide including as translators in wards with immigrant populations and as “searchers” who helped identify patients and bodies. They washed dishes and laundered soiled linens, cooked meals for patients and staff.  With all their efforts, they too often fell ill, and many died trying to help others. 

In the official analysis of the pandemic, Connecticut lost 9,000 citizens with more than a third of that falling in Fairfield county with a total of 3,050 victims. The majority of those deaths were in Bridgeport (1,417) but in contrast, Agnes‘ hometown of Easton only recorded one death officially attributed to influenza. The reasons for this disparity were made clear shortly afterward in studies of the epidemic. There was a strong correlation between the high population density of the inner cities and high mortality rates, while agricultural communities like Easton that were not directly on railroad lines were spared the worst of the illness.  

After the flu raged through the state, Agnes returned to Bridgeport. The military hospital where she had worked was closed in August 1919.  The war was over and the facility was transferred to the Public Health Service Department. With just under a year of active service, Agnes continued her nursing career a while longer in Bridgeport until she married. Perhaps we can glean a bit more about her character and her experiences  through her fundraising activities in her last year of active nursing. Along with a handful of other women, she helped raise $5,000 in 1921. The endowment they created was to provide emergency healthcare and hospitalization specifically for sick nurses at Bridgeport Hospital. With the hardships these women faced and the dangers to their own health, it seems no wonder that Agnes and her colleagues felt compelled to fund a legacy for those who dedicated their lives to the care of others. 

The historical image at the top of the article is an American Red Cross Poster, 1918.

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By Elizabeth Boyce, Historical Society of Easton

Historical Society of Easton