Ida K. Naparstek

Pandemic Influenza Storybook

Storyteller: J. David Naparstek

Location: Ayer, Massachusetts

Ayer, Massachusetts, railroad station

My late mother, Ida K. Naparstek, grew up in Ayer, Massachusetts. Ayer was the “Army Town” to Fort Devens. Ayer was the hub for major North-South and East-West railroad lines, which was one of the reasons the military decided to locate the Fort there.

My mother once described to me a terrifying scene that she saw when she was about five years old. When she went downtown, she saw caskets stacked high and deep on both sides of the railroad tracks from one side of town to the other. They contained the bodies of the GIs who had died in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and were being returned to their families for burial.

Residents of the Town of Ayer and the adjacent communities became quite concerned about the potential for disease spreading from the military to the civilian population. A public health committee was set up in the 1920s to find ways to protect the civilian population. In 1932, the Nashoba Health District was established. During a budget crunch in the middle 1950s, there was an item on the Ayer Town Meeting Warrant to withdraw from the Nashoba Health District as a way of saving money. My mother, Ida, rose to speak passionately about the need for public health protection and to remind the voters of Ayer about the gruesome scene of 1918. The item failed, and Nashoba continues to this day to serve the residents of Central Massachusetts towns.

As a child, I went to well-child clinics at Nashoba, received my polio shots from them as part of a public health experiment to improve mass immunization practices. While in high school, I washed test tubes in Nashoba’s laboratory, and in college worked as a field sanitarian. For nine years, I served as the District’s Director of Public Health. Thanks, Mom!