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From the ACS Archives

A Tale of Two Pandemics: Clinical Congress and the 1918 Flu and 2020 COVID-19

The decision to cancel the in-person Clinical Congress because of a global pandemic, as happened in 2020 because of COVID-19, is rare, but not unprecedented in the history of the ACS. The ACS Archives provides information on parallels between today and more than 100 years ago.

Only five years after the ACS was founded, the world was experiencing two generation-defining events—World War I and the 1918 Flu Pandemic. The war began in 1914, with the U.S. joining the Allied Forces in April 1917; in March 1918, the first reports of flu-like illness were detected in the U.S. This first wave of flu activity spread unevenly throughout the world over the next six months. In September 1918, the second wave of flu emerged in the U.S. and peaked between September and November. Most of the total 675,000 influenza deaths in the U.S. occurred in this time period.

The 1918 Clinical Congress was scheduled for October, and despite the war, Franklin H. Martin, MD, FACS, the Secretary-General and founder of the College, saw no reason not to move forward with meetings, Convocation and conferring of Honorary Fellowships as they had the year before. It was not until the second wave of influenza hit the U.S., shortly before the meeting was to begin, that Dr. Martin agreed to cancel. He insisted, however, with agreement from the Board of Regents, that they confer the Honorary Fellowships on the foreign surgeons who had planned to be in the U.S. for Clinical Congress. The Honorary Fellows arrived in the U.S. and visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN; Chicago, IL; and finally New York, NY, where on November 6, 1918, at a dinner held at Delmonico’s restaurant and attended by local Fellows, six surgeons were presented Honorary Fellowship.

The power of technology has transformed our ability to connect and learn during another global pandemic, as well as made it possible to avoid cancellation and to transition Clinical Congress 2020 to a virtual format. Dr. Martin’s reluctance to cancel the 1918 Congress was justified, as there is much to be shared and learned about surgery in such a challenging time, while always keeping the welfare of patients as the primary concern. The ACS is gratified to be able to continue our tradition of holding the Clinical Congress in a way unimaginable 100 years ago.

Excerpt from the October 23, 1919, Board of Regents Minutes

Excerpt from the October 23, 1919, Board of Regents Minutes page 1

Excerpt from the October 23, 1919, Board of Regents Minutes page 2