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The Oregon National Guard at the San Francisco Earthquake Disaster

Books and Documents > The U.S. Army Medical Department in the Aftermatch of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 18 April 1906

Excerpt from Military Surgeon, Vol. 19, No. 5 (November 1906)



By Captain William E. Carll,
Assistant Surgeon in the Oregon National Guard.

On April 19, 1906, I was detailed by Adjutant General W. E. Finzer of the Oregon National Guard to proceed to San Francisco and report to Governor Pardee of California tendering to him the Hospital Corps of the Oregon National Guard for volunteer service to the people of California who suffered from the earthquake and fire which destroyed the city of San Francisco on April 18, 19, and 20.

The Corps arrived one day later, and consisted of four Surgeons, ten enlisted men, together with a complete Regimental Field Hospital equipment, of drugs, surgical dressings, instruments and bedding, etc.

After two days camp at the Presidio we were detailed to report to the Health Commission of San Francisco for duty and were immediately assigned to establish an emergency hospital in what is known as the Potrero district of that city. The Wilmerding Industrial School was given us in which to inaugurate a hospital.

The conditions at this time were very chaotic, there were over two hundred thousand people living in tents short of food and clothing and still suffering from the shock of the disaster, many of them sick, and discouraged.

It was necessary to work hard and quickly; the only advantage we had was in having a building with good water supply, fortunately the water in this district was quickly reestablished; there was no light except from candles; the chimneys were all down and no fires allowed in any building; it was necessary to obtain cooking range, cooks, dish washers, waiters, food fit for sick babies, injured men, women and children, set up cots, enlist nurses and admit patients all at once.


In less than twenty hours after arriving at this place we had nearly fifty bed patients, were treating dispensary patients at the rate of about one hundred a day, had food sufficient for immediate needs, all the help necessary to run the kitchen department, four surgeons of the corps, and one volunteer surgeon assisting in the out-patient department, together with ten volunteer nurses. The services of these nurses were most valuable; two of the number came from Portland, Oregon, under volunteer service, four were nurses who had been rendered homeless by the fire in San Francisco, and four were volunteer nurses from Seattle, Washington; they worked early and late, there could be only one rule,-everybody work all the time if necessary, and for several days it was necessary.

The number of patients increased until we had fifty bed patients and were treating one hundred in the out-patient department, the number was about equally divided between medical and surgical cases.

Contagious and infectious cases and demented cases were examined but not received by us but sent to the places designated by the Health Commission to receive them.

Rheumatism and pneumonia prevailed in the sick wards. There was much enterogastritis resulting from the food stuffs the people were obliged to consume; it was quite evident from the large number of such cases as well as evident from examination of the canned food that many of the supplies which had been donated had come from old stock, and as it was impossible to inspect it all, much sickness was caused by its use; one death took place in our emergency hospital caused by ptomaine poisoning although it was not possible to make an autopsy at that place.

In the surgical wards the accident cases consisted of fractures; there were three cases of Potts fracture, three Colles, one of the elbow and one of the acromion; the balance of the surgical cases were of a minor nature. Quite a number were cases from hospitals which had been destroyed and the patients scattered until they could find some other place to be cared for. In the baby ward we had six sick babies all suffering from gastric disturbances and five of them with pneumonia with one death.


One child a girl ten years old died from injuries received in falling from a small foot bridge; the injuries were internal; no autopsy, but appearances indicated hemorrhage of liver from rupture.

During the ten days we conducted the emergency hospital we treated in the wards of the hospital fifty-five medical and thirty surgical cases, in the dispensary 495 medical and 305 surgical cases. In addition to this we fed about one hundred refugees every day and furnished many with blankets and articles of clothing.

At the end of ten days the various hospitals and other institutions of the city were in shape to take the patients and they were all transferred to the homes of friends or to some other hospital, and the Corps returned to Portland, Oregon.

There was much to learn while on a duty of this sort-how to feed, care for and properly treat this number of patients under the most adverse circumstances. Such food as could be supplied for well people was not practicable or useful for a hospital, and after one day had been provided for it was necessary to look out for the next one; it was imperative that milk, eggs, fresh meat and fresh vegetables should be on hand, and the methods sometimes resorted to had best be left to the imagination of the reader of this article; it is enough to say that we were never without such foodstuffs as the patients required, and we had them in reasonable abundance.

The supply of medicines in the city was very short, surgical dressings and materials were also short and it should be a lesson to the national government to keep a supply of these materials at available points for emergency use; these materials are easily stored, do not deteriorate for along time and could be stored for use to good advantage.

There was much fault found with the Red Cross Society for the way they did things or rather the way they did not do things which they might have done; my criticism is that there were too many officers riding about in automobiles making much noise and fuss, promising all sorts of relief for everybody and so far as my observation went failing to execute these promises. This condi-


tion was much improved after Dr. Devine took charge and at present this Society is doing good work and lots of it; the only trouble was in the first week or ten days when the Society was sadly in need of somebody who could do things or at least direct others to do things. It was of little use to destitute children and people who needed clothing to have some Red Cross official toot up in an auto and promise immediate relief and never see the party again; the next day another would come along and make careful note of what was needed, and so on every day some official; but in the twelve days I was on duty not one promise made good.

The officers of our Hospital Corps consisted of Major Sternberg, Captain Carll, Captain Wight and Lieutenant Marcellus, with Dr. Berkley as a civilian volunteer. Major Sternberg was called home on account of his father's death, when the command devolved upon Captain Carll.