The Greats Wine Flu Epidemic Of 1918


All places of public assembly in the city were closed, and Philadelphia began to resemble the London described by an English official during the great bubonic plague of 250 years before: ”… the streete thin of people, the shops shut up, and all in mournful silence, as not knowing whose turne might be next.” Even the death carts of London’s Great Plague were recalled in Philadelphia. The Reverend Dr. Joseph Corrigan, director of Catholic Charities, assembled a convoy of six horse-drawn wagons and a truck that scoured the city’s back streets and alleyways in search of abandoned victims. Forcing open doors in cheap tenements and rundown rooming houses, the priest and his helpers gathered up some 200 bodies in twenty-four hours. They deposited their grim harvest in a morgue built to accommodate 36 dead, where conditions soon became so offensive that veteran embalmers recoiled and refused to enter.


Responding to this kind of congestion, the J. F. Brill Company, Philadelphia streetcar manufacturers, temporarily turned its woodworking shop over to the construction of coffins to ease the shortage. In Baltimore the mayor, fearful of contagion from unburied influenza victims, urged undertakers to speed up their work, but the morticians complained that they were hampered by the insistence of families on expensive coffins, which were sold out. The acting health commissioner of Buffalo, New York, announced that his city would begin the manufacture of coffins. “They will not be $1,000 caskets or even $100 caskets,” he said. “They will be plain, with plain handles, and respectable. … The casket business,” he added irritably, “is a worse trust than oil.” In Pittsburgh stacked coffins lined the street for a city block. They were all used. A health official in Washington, B.C., had been tipped off by a railroad employee that two carloads of coffins due for delivery to Pittsburgh were in the Washington freight yards. He hijacked the entire shipment and assigned police to guard the coffins.

What was this unseen destroyer that was taking life in unprecedented numbers? What caused it? How did it travel? Why did it kill?

Dr. Simon Flexner, brilliant head of the department of pathology and bacteriology at the Rockefeller Institute, directed one of his key researchers to devote all her attention to detecting the cause of the disease. Despite a valiant effort, she and her colleagues were unable to isolate or identify the agent, concluding only that the epidemic was indeed influenza, caused by some unknown germ.

Meanwhile less scientific sources proposed other explanations. According to one theory poison gases used in the war, air charged with carbon dioxide from the trenches, and gases formed from decomposing bodies and from exploding ammunition had all fused to form a highly toxic vapor that the victims had inhaled. Among other causes of the epidemic advanced by physicians were the effects of cosmic rays, atmospheric pressure, air stagnation, ozone, coal dust, fleas, the distemper of cats and dogs, and dirty dishwater.


Late in September, in the unlikely setting of the National Swine Breeders’ show in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about 45o miles from Fort Riley, Kansas, a more likely speculation was being formulated. Hog breeders at the show were alarmed to find their prize animals felled by sickness—prostrate, sweating, and groaning in the display pens. Dr. J. S. Koen, an inspector from the Division of Hog Cholera Control of the Bureau of Animal Husbandry, thought he detected a similarity between the hogs’ ailment and the influenza now striking people in Cedar Rapids. He identified the sickness in his report to Washington as the “hog flu.” A decade later researchers would conclude that there was indeed a connection between the two diseases.

When influenza assailed human beings, it struck like a thunderclap. One minute a person would be perfectly well and then, suddenly, would feel totally helpless, overcome with lassitude. The victim wanted to stop whatever he or she was doing and lie down immediately. Early symptoms were headache, chills, fever, and great pain in the legs and back. The inside of the mouth and throat turned flaming red. The influenza patient often coughed agonizingly, and breath came in painful sobs. Frequent complications were paralysis of eye muscles, swollen ankles, and blood-streaked urine. As the infection deepened, symptoms in some cases resembled those of encephalitis, with the victim slipping into a coma.

But it was the devastation dealt the lungs that killed. An albuminous discharge filled the air sacs in the lungs, preventing the capillaries from taking vital oxygen to the body. Thus the actual cause of death was asphyxiation. The results of autopsies were appalling: the lungs showed evidence of hemorrhaging and abscessing, swelling, accumulation of pus, sometimes total collapse. The influenza often would open the gateway to fatal complicating diseases, particularly pneumonia. Yet for all its deadly force, patients who did not succumb to the illness were usually up and about in a week or so.