By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian
As the United States experiences high flu activity, we thought we’d look back on the 1918 flu pandemic, which lead to the deaths of 50 million people worldwide, including nearly 675,000 people in the United States.1
The first case of the so-called Spanish Influenza in the United States originated at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier on August 28, 1918.2 On September 3, it landed in nearby Brockton, Mass., where the disease became widespread by the middle of the month.
Ernest A. Burrill detailed the efforts of the city in Brockton’s Fight Against Influenza. One problem faced was a lack of food—sick parents could not cook for children, and residents were afraid to enter infected homes. A well-organized food department came to the rescue, preparing food at a community kitchen and delivering it to 388 sick people at its peak on October 10.2
Brockton officials established a field hospital to centralize medical staffing. “A tented city grew up over night,” and within days of its opening, patients moved from area hospitals to the tents. During its two weeks of operation, the field hospital treated more than 300 patients. The food department provided the makeshift hospital with “5 dozen ham sandwiches, 3 quarts chicken stew, 2 dozen cakes, 32 quarts of gruel, 27 quarts of broth, 35 quarts of milk, 9 loaves of bread, in addition to jellies, preserves, etc.”2
The flu peaked in Chicago in mid-October. A month earlier, an ambitious public health campaign instructed residents to cover their mouths when sneezing and coughing. In a 1918 report, Commissioner of Health John Dill Robertson wrote, “The danger of uncovered coughing and sneezing has probably been so thoroughly impressed upon the people of the City of Chicago that fruit will be borne from this source for years to come.”3 (Chicagoans, is this fruit still being borne?)
In Chicago as in much of the country, “places of amusement were closed” at the peak of the pandemic. “This included theaters of all kinds, cabarets, dance halls, athletic meets, and everything of this kind. People were advised to go home and to get nine hours of sleep, on the theory that rest was the best preventive medicine that could be had. In fact, by cutting out all these night assemblages there was no place for the people to go and they had to remain home.”3
In addition, Chicago and other cities banned public funerals. In Chicago, only 10 mourners, not including clergy, could attend for fear of spreading the disease from the family of the deceased and through contact with infected premises.
Chicago churches, schools, and workplaces remained open, although clergy were instructed to keep services short and officials closely monitored school conditions. “Nothing was done to interfere with the morale of the community,” wrote Dill. The Health Department did require closing, thorough cleaning, and subsequent inspection of places of public assembly.3
Scientists had developed a vaccine for pneumonia, which often co-occurred with the flu in 1918, and health officials distributed 174,264 doses in Chicago once determining the severity of the pandemic.3 The Brockton report indicates that the New York City Health Department prepared a vaccine for the flu strain, but it was not yet available to them.2
While the current flu outbreak does not compare to the 1918 pandemic, we can learn from earlier experiences. Cover your mouth, do what you can to avoid contact with sick people, and be grateful that you can get vaccinated.
For more on the 1918 flu, visit http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/1918/
1. Flu.gov. (n.d.). Pandemic Flu History. Retrieved January 17, 2013, from http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/index.html#
2. Burrill, E. A. (1918). The story of Brockton’s fight against influenza. Brockton: Press of Nichols & Eldridge.
3. Robertson, J. D. (1918). A report on an epidemic of influenza in the city of Chicago in the fall of 1918. Chicago: Dept. of Health.