The trouble with the “trust the science” mantra is that there’s ultimately no way to separate scientific judgments from political ones.
That helps explain how a hack in over his head ended up doing the right thing and keeping New York City’s schools open in the midst of a deadly pandemic even as other American cities shut down.
History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes, and long before Mayor de Blasio at least tried to keep public schools open in response to what Donald Trump calls “The China Virus,” which has killed nearly 35,000 New Yorkers and 5.5 million people worldwide, Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland really did that as the “Spanish Flu” ravaged Gotham, killing about 50,000 people here and 50 million altogether.
It’s a story that resonates now — as parents and kids hold their breath to see if new Mayor Eric Adams withstands pressure from the teachers union for more closures — about how getting a few big calls right can compensate for other errors of judgment and failures of character.
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In January of 1918, John Hylan was sworn in as mayor of New York City as the Tammany Hall machine reclaimed power.
That same month, as John F. Barry relates in his magisterial “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” dozens of people in rural Haskell County, Kan. — pop. 1,720 — began falling seriously ill.
“Most everybody over the country is having lagrippe or pneumonia” the local paper reported in February, along with accounts of young soldiers headed to and arriving from Army Camp Funston (now Ft. Riley), 300 miles to the east.
On March 4, a soldier at the camp, which housed more than 55,000 on an average day, reported being sick with influenza. By the end of March, more than 1,100 soldiers had been hospitalized there, with thousands more being treated at infirmaries.
By the end of April, 24 of the nation’s 36 Army bases had outbreaks and 30 of America’s 50 largest cities had spikes that month in their “excess mortality,” according to an American Medical Association survey a decade later.
The first autopsy of an influenza victim, conducted in April, found that “The lungs were full of hemorrhages” — a rare enough finding that the pathologist asked the editor of The Journal of Infectious Diseases “to look over it as a new disease.”
American troops fighting in Europe’s Great War brought the flu to France and it spread from there, wreaking devastation that was overshadowed by the war.
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Back in New York City, Mayor Hylan was ousting public health officials to make room for patronage hires so aggressively that the Tammany-appointed health commissioner resigned in protest.
In May, Barry recounts, “The mayor was standing outside City Hall when a crony introduced Royal Copeland to him, and suggested the mayor name him the new health commissioner. But Copeland, dean of a homeopathic medical school, was not even an M.D. Nonetheless the mayor agreed to appoint him. The three men then climbed the steps to his office, and Copeland was sworn in.”
Thus, writes Barry, “the best municipal health department in the world was now led by a man with no belief in modern scientific medicine and whose ambitions were not in public health but in politics.”
But Copeland, a professor of ophthalmology, eye surgeon and former Republican mayor of Ann Arbor who’d switched parties to hitch himself to Tammany, eventually and almost in spite of himself saw New York City and its school kids through a dark winter.
He got off to a terrible start when the ocean liner, the SS Bergensfjord, docked in Brooklyn on Aug. 12, after burying four men at sea. Dozens of crew members and passengers were taken by ambulances to a hospital in Brooklyn.
In a joint statement with the port health officer, Copeland said there was “not the slightest danger of an epidemic” from a disease that rarely attacks “a well-nourished people.”
When two more ships with outbreaks on board made it to New York a week later, Copeland again said there was no cause for concern, claiming that those hospitalized didn’t have the dreaded “Spanish influenza” — as the Kansas flu was commonly referred to in the U.S., since Spain had remained neutral in the war and thus didn’t censor news about its outbreak — but an old-fashioned flu caused by chilly winds as ships sailed further north to avoid German submarines.
For more than a month, Copeland continued denying there was an epidemic here while advising increasingly worried New Yorkers to put germ-blocking guards over their office phones (promoting his own invention in the process), drink hot lemonade and soak their feet in hot mustard water, and to stop spitting in public or kissing “except through a handkerchief.”
The city recorded its first influenza death on Sept. 15, and on Sept. 17 Copeland’s Board of Health finally mandated that physicians report cases of influenza and pneumonia. While people were supposed to quarantine at home, there was no enforcement of that policy.
Streets emptied out as hospitals filled up and conspiracy theories circulated, including one about Bayer aspirin supposedly being laced with “influenza germs and some slow poison.” (To combat that misinformation, the Board of Health tested samples.)
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It wasn’t until Sept. 28 that Copeland acknowledged the epidemic, but even as other big cities implemented shutdowns, he kept the trains running, since “you might as well try to cut off the main artery of the body as to close the subway,” while requiring businesses to maintain staggered schedules to reduce crowding.
He also kept theaters open, except for poorly ventilated “holes in the walls,” arguing that “the movies kept the minds of the people off the subjects of the flu and death” as part of his mission to “prevent panic, hysteria, mental disturbance, and thus to protect the public from the condition of mind that in itself predisposes to physical ills.”
Copeland, who was bigger on self-promotion than on consistency, also said theaters “were made centres of public health education” as patrons were warned not to cough or sit too closely together.
He dispatched an army of Boy Scouts to hand warning cards to public spitters about how “You are in violation of the Sanitary Code,” and created a “Sanitary Squad” of 60 cops supposedly “using the highest degree of detective knowledge” to protect New Yorkers.
Critically, Copeland kept the schools running, arguing that most of the city’s million students (slightly more than we have now, even as the total population has grown from 5.6 million to 8.8 million) would be healthier and better monitored there, with weekly medical inspections administered through the progressive Division of Child Hygiene, than they would be in the tenement apartments where an estimated 750,000 of them lived.
As the death toll kept rising, with 400 deaths on Oct. 16 and then between 400 and 500 for each of the next 10 days, students were required to report daily on arrival to a teacher for inspection with those displaying any symptoms isolated and given a medical examination.
Students with fevers or other indicators were sent home with someone from the Health Department who made a spot judgment about whether they could safely isolate there under the care of a family physician or a doctor provided by the city without charge. If not, the child was sent to a hospital.
As the pandemic killed 195,000 Americans in October, New York City kept running. Copeland’s own 8-year old-son caught influenza after his private school, the Ethical Culture School, closed its doors that month, which showed, Copeland said, that “children are better off in school, under supervision, than playing about in the streets.”
While Los Angeles shifted to correspondence courses, Copeland said that “I know that in our city one of the most important methods of disease-control is the public school system.”
With no vaccine or cure, the Department of Health reported that 33,000 New Yorkers died during the pandemic — the third lowest death rate of America’s 20 largest cities. “We fared better than did the rest of the world,” Copeland boasted, and that claim mostly held up even after a later study found that in fact the flu had killed 48,000 New Yorkers between the fall of 1918 and the summer of 1919.
“My purpose in doing it all in this way, without issuing general closing orders and making a public flurry over the situation, was to keep down the danger of panic,” Copeland said on Nov. 17 of 1918, even as he prematurely played up the pandemic’s damage and his response to what turned out to have been only its first wave, with two smaller ones hitting the city again at the beginning of both 1919 and 1920 before the flu mutated into something less catastrophic.
Unlike the coronavirus, the “Spanish Flu” hit young people especially hard and Copeland suggested that there were upwards of 20,000 “orphans and half-orphans to be cared for as a result of the plague,” and recalled that “I watched the death rate go up and up. I went to Calvary Cemetery and saw a new grave in every lot and 400 dead bodies in a building at the rear of the cemetery waiting to be buried. I went out and got a steam shovel and men off the street. We dug trenches to bury the dead”
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It didn’t take long for Copeland to profit from the city’s performance on his watch.
In February of 1920, just as the third and final wave of the pandemic was subsiding, the movie industry took out newspaper ads praising Copeland — ”This Man Guards the Health of Five Million People” — for keeping theaters open amid the “hullabaloo and panic of other cities.”
Copeland launched a wildly popular syndicated newspaper column, Your Health, while also hosting a heavily advertised radio show. He often focused on weight loss, and gained a devoted following among newly enfranchised women as he claimed to have run an experiment in which 50 women “rid themselves of seven feet of waistline and a half a ton of weight.” (He also favored short skirts as “more hygienic,” along with thin silk stockings and low-necked gowns.)
In 1922, William Randolph Hearst recruited Dr. Copeland, as his name appeared on campaign posters, to run for the Senate, with a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt — who’d spent weeks convalescing at his mother’s home in Manhattan in 1918 after catching the flu while sailing back from France on a U.S. warship — serving as his campaign chair.
The celebrity doctor won in an upset, and was soon nicknamed “the great anaesthesiologist of the Senate” for lecturing other lawmakers about working themselves to death and for his crusade to get air conditioning in the Senate chambers, where he claimed that “the vilest ventilated room in the world” had killed 34 incumbents over the previous 12 years.
Copeland, who didn’t take his own advice about over-work, died in office after 15 years serving in the Senate while also writing Your Health, appearing in ads for Bond Bread (“The Bond behind Bond Bread is an epoch-making guarantee of purity”), and testifying as an expert witness on behalf of Buffalo Mineral Water, which claimed to include lithium to cure everything from kidney stones to menstrual problems.
In spite of his puffery and self-promotion, Copeland got a crucial decision right in keeping New York City and its schools open. Here’s hoping today’s flawed characters end up doing as well.
‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort