The Greats Wine Flu Epidemic Of 1918


The swift spread of a highly contagious infection was to be expected in densely populated cities, but influenza made inexplicable leaps. A public-health nurse told of traveling deep into Michigan lumber-camp country on a railroad handcar, the only available conveyance, to help isolated knots of people found burning with fever, huddled in rude log cabins. In Oregon medical authorities were at a loss to explain the appearance of the disease among families of sheepherders living in remote cabins separated from each other by miles of open country.


In October Congress approved a special $1-million fund to enable the United States Public Health Service to recruit physicians and nurses for the emergency. Dr. Rupert Blue, surgeon general of the United States, set out to hire 1,085 physicians and 703 nurses with the new funds. The bottom of the barrel was scraped; some recruits came from homes for the aged, and one doctor was a drug addict. But Dr. Blue managed to find 1,000 recruits who met the minimal standard: they were all licensed to practice medicine.

In any case the influenza epidemic was proving a humbling experience for the medical profession. This was the generation that had clinically developed the germ theory of disease and had discovered vaccines or devised preventive defenses against typhoid fever, diphtheria, tetanus, meningitis, tuberculosis, malaria, and yellow fever. But influenza yielded to no known medication. Officials had to fall back on the most rudimentary public- and personal-health measures.

Early in October, Louis Brownlow, the only health commissioner not down with influenza in Washington, D.C., closed the schools, theatres, and barrooms and suspended all public gatherings. At the National Burlesque “Flo-Flo” and her “Perfect 36” chorus rang down a final curtain on the Frolics of the Night , and the girls admirably responded to an appeal for volunteers to help out at a Washington emergency hospital. Woodrow Wilson had to forgo a favored diversion from the burdens of a wartime Presidency when B. F. Keith’s vaudeville theatre closed. A week or so earlier Boston had canceled its Liberty Bond parades and sports events, closed its churches, and put the stock exchange on half days.


Other communities resisted shutting down profitable enterprises. In Kansas City, Missouri, “Boss” Tom Pendergast refused to close the places of amusement, including saloons. Some 1,800 persons would eventually die of influenza in his town. The health commissioner of New York City, Dr. Royal Copeland, a politically ambitious eye specialist with no public-health background, heard the arguments of theatre people that a shutdown of their enterprises would only provoke panic. Copeland noted that only two per cent of the city’s population was sick with the disease and left the theatres open. On the day of his decision 354 people died in New York of influenza and related pneumonia. Still, no one could say with any certainty whether one official’s action or another’s inaction exerted a particle of influence over the progress of the epidemic.

People who ventured out faced a flurry of new civil ordinances. San Francisco was one of many cities that required everyone to wear face masks in public. In New York City huge signs appeared, warning that public coughing and sneezing without a handkerchief was unlawful and threatening violators with stiff fines and jail sentences. Within a few days dutiful policemen had hauled 500 hapless sneezers and coughers into court. Chicago had a similar ordinance, and lawmen there had plenty of time to enforce this new regulation; the epidemic had reduced the crime rate in their city for the month of October by 43 per cent. The Colgate company did its part by placing ads that described the twelve rules for preventing Spanish influenza. Among the recommendations: chew food carefully, avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, and tight gloves, and breathe as much fresh air as possible.

But the epidemic raged on. New York City recorded 3,077 new cases of influenza in one twenty-four-hour period. One in ten died. In Washington a public-health doctor noted that the only way he could assure room in his emergency hospital in an F Street storefront was to station undertakers at the door to remove the dead promptly. Health Commissioner Brownlow, at home with his sick wife, received a desperate call from a young woman. Of her three roommates two were already dead and the third was dying. Brownlow called the police and asked them to investigate. He soon received a sergeant’s terse report: “Four girls dead” at that address.

Philadelphia was staggered. The early record of 289 deaths in one day was easily surpassed. On October 10, while firemen hosed down the streets all day and people faithfully wore their face masks outside, 528 Philadelphians perished from influenza. The fury of this mortality rate can perhaps be better imagined in terms of 528 Philadelphians dying in a single day in traffic accidents or in a fire rather than, prosaically, in bed.