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The 1918 Flu Pandemic: When One Third Of The World Got Sick

National Archives and Records Administration
During the 1918-19 pandemic more soldiers died from flu and pneumonia than combat.

The worst pandemic in recent history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was the 1918 so-called “Spanish flu” pandemic, caused by a virus “with genes of avian origin.” This was caused by a different virus than COVID-19 – coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, hopkinsmedicine.org. Spanish flu hit America in the spring of 1918 and wasn’t finished with us until the summer of 1919. 

The CDC estimates that one third of everyone on the planet got the Spanish flu. At least 50 million people died around the world, including about 675,000 Americans.

The bug broadsided everybody. There were no effective vaccines or medicines for it and very little was known about the flu. In America, many healthcare givers were overseas helping with World War I or working at military stations at home. Cities struggled to find people to help the increasing waves of patients. Recommended preventions and treatments included fresh air, rest, laxatives, neck wraps of smelly herbs, face masks, and hot lemonade. 

“At that time the belief was that you had to have fresh air for the patients,” said Hallie Staley Kinter in her University of Illinois Springfield oral history. She was training to be a nurse in Springfield during the 1918 pandemic. “You’d have to have the windows open (for the flu patients) and the rooms were so awfully cold at night…” Nurses were denied time off. Kinter and one of her co-workers contracted the virus. Kinter recovered. Her co-worked died. 

In Illinois, the flu arrived in September, 1918 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near north Chicago, where sailors were preparing for war in Europe. An Indiana sailor there said it hit men fast, “They turned ashen gray and usually faint” (from “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic 1918 – 1919,” Public Health Report 2010: 125). The Station tried to stop the flu’s spread by confining men to the base, giving all sailors “daily nose and throat sprays,” isolating those with symptoms, and quarantining those who had been exposed to the sick, according to the Influenza Encyclopedia (influenzaarchive.org). 

Servicemen also got sick on their way to battles overseas, as former Springfieldian Bruce K. Hayden, Sr. recalled in his University of Illinois Springfield oral history. He and his unit traveled on a ship they called “Death Ship Mongolia.” “Men got on the ship that had the flu…After we had gotten out from shore about a day, men began to die just like rats with the flu.” The dead were kept below deck, so Hayden and others who were sick stayed near the deck for fresh air. “Men would just die, just come on my lap and all around me there, men were dying and they would take them and bury them at sea…they didn’t hardly have time to wrap them in sheets,” he said. 

Within a month of the outbreak at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, the Chicago Tribune reported thousands of Chicagoans coming down with the flu. The disease spread south and hit central Illinois in October, 1918. On October 11, the Illinois Influenza Advisory Commission banned public dances across the state. Four days later, Dr. C. St. Claire Drake, Illinois’ director of public health, ordered that all social gatherings not essential for the war be shuttered, but let saloons, poolrooms and bowling alleys remain open if they got enough fresh air. 

“It was terrible,” said Monsignor Jesse L. Gatton, a chaplain at Springfield’s St. John’s Hospital during the pandemic, in his University of Illinois Springfield oral history. “The doctors didn’t know anything about what the flu was. They didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t even know how to protect (themselves) except that you wore a cloth over your mouth and nostrils breathing so you wouldn’t breathe in any germs.

“I was busy during that year,” said Gatton. “Both hospitals (in Springfield) were filled with patients and the city of Springfield set up a temporary hospital out at the fairgrounds. As soon as the patient got any signs of the flu why he went to this place. And then when he got very sick, why they brought him into the hospital…I remember giving them Extreme Unction (Last Rites) on the way up to the room, on the elevator. When they got to the floor, they were so sick that many of them died.”

While some universities closed, the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana did not, “despite high absence rates of staff and students,” according to its archives (archives.library.illinois.edu). Winnetka closed schools, theaters and dances while Chicago, Peoria, and Springfield banned or restricted public funerals. 

Mildred Shull contracted the flu that year as a child in Springfield, and discussed how it affected caring for the dead in her University of Illinois Springfield oral history. “People were so afraid of this flu and when somebody died, the undertaker wouldn’t go in (the house) to take the body out,” she said. “They raised the window and shoved a board in. I can remember this because it made such a horrible impression on my mind as a child. They shoved this board in and the people inside would wrap the body in a sheet and lay it on that board and they would slide it out.”

Hygiene patrols sprung up. In New York, Boy Scouts gave spitters a card saying they’d broken “The Sanitary Code.” Police in Illinois’ capital told coughers or sneezers to go home; their counterparts in the Windy City told offenders to use a handkerchief, but if they gave the police a hard time, they were arrested. 

Peoria shuttered most businesses and Winnetka quarantined everyone in homes where someone was ill, according to the Peoria Public Library and Winnetka Historical Society, respectively (peoriapubliclibrary.org, winnetakhistory.org) . 

Illinois’s flu cases lightened after the devastating fall of 1918, but bad news hit again. During the winter and summer of 1919, the third and final wave hit. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, about 23,500 Illinoisans died from the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1919.

America’s World War I soldiers fared worse. According to “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic 1918 – 1919,”  flu and pneumonia killed more of them than combat.

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