Sunday, July 1, 2012

Finding History Right around the Corner: Heroism on the Cajun Home Front

The following serves as a good example of how history can be found right around the corner, literally, if you look for it.

In my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People I wrote:

As occurred elsewhere in the nation [during World War II], wartime anxiety sometimes escalated into wartime hysteria.  When a highly contagious disease wiped out hundreds of muskrats in the coastal marshlands and spread to nineteen south Louisianians, killing eight, rumor circulated that the outbreak had been caused by Japanese germ warfare.  Fearing widespread panic, the federal government moved in, quarantined all possible disease carriers, and asked the media to refrain from reporting the incident.  The disease was eventually identified as psittacosis, or "parrot fever," a viral infection transmitted by birds (p. 13).

As it turns out, a residence only a block from my house served as a quarantine house for some of those who contracted the disease.  As the Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate reported eighteen years later in 1961:

On March 3 [1943] the focus of the epidemic shifted from Ville Platte and Rayne to New Iberia.  Miss Antoinette Bourgeois, one of the nurses from New Iberia who had volunteered to help at Rayne, felt a pain at the base of her neck.  Miss Antoinette Bonin, also a nurse who had helped, felt the same pain plus a headache.  They were returned to New Iberia and placed in quarantine in a duplex at 142 Pollard Avenue.  Dr. Edwin L. Landry attended them and five women volunteers entered the house to care for them, knowing that their chances of ever leaving alive were about fifty-fifty.

142 Pollard Avenue, New Iberia, Louisiana,
as it looks today (July 2012).
(Photo by the author)

The article continued:

The volunteers were Miss Cecile Bourgeois, a sister of Miss Antoinette Bourgeois, two sisters of Miss Bonin, Miss Helen Hobart and Miss Remas Gerhart.  The physicians and Miss Katherine Avery, Iberia Parish Public Health nurse, entered the house frequently, always taking elaborate, almost ritualistic precautions.  The townspeople, however, were deathly afraid of the disease.  Some crossed to the opposite side of the street before passing the house.  When groceries were delivered they were left on the sidewalk.  Dr. Landry and Miss Avery were shunned.

The disease, however, was a potent one, taking the lives of both nurses Bourgeois and Bonin in March 1943.

Katherine Avery, one of the five nurses who entered
the quarantine house on Pollard Avenue.
(Source: Avery Island, Inc., Archives)

"Back in the house on Pollard Avenue," recorded the Sunday Advocate , "the five women were hopefully waiting out their 21 days quarantine after the deaths of the two nurses."  However, one of the five, Gerhart, contracted the disease.  "But the people of the community then decided that they had assumed more than their fair share of the risk and an old plantation home six miles outside town was obtained.  Three of the women were put in quarantine out there. . . . The [two remaining] women on Pollard Avenue waited out their 21 days and the quarantine was broken."  (Gerhart survived after "repeated transfusions from recovered patients" under the supervision of Dr. Landry.)

Old street identifications in the pavement,
New Iberia, Louisiana (July 2012).
(Photo by the author)

Much of this story transpired, commented the New Iberia Daily Iberian in response to the Advocate article, in "a house that still stands on Pollard Avenue" — as it stands today on that quiet suburban street . . . a quaint reminder of wartime heroism on the Cajun home front.

Nurse and patient Remas Gerhart, seated,
with additional nurse volunteers;
photo taken at 142 Pollard Avenue.
(Note house with tell-tale eaves in background.)
(Source: Sunday Advocate; original source unknown)

Sources: James H. Hughes, Jr., "Strange Malady Spread Terror through the Marshlands," (Baton Rouge) Sunday Advocate, 1 October 1961, p. 1-E; Jim Levy, "Talk of the Teche [column]," [(New Iberia) Daily Iberian], ca. 1 October 1961, n.p.

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