Influenza Article Part Two

Please read this second installment in the Influenza article series, written by Paul Andrews, who works with the artifacts here at HSL.

One hundred years ago, the United States was in the grips of a modern plague.  The months of September and October, 1918 were the deadliest of the Influenza epidemic in the U.S.  Nearly 200,000 people died in those months, almost half of the total U.S. flu deaths of the epidemic.  Eight-hundred and fifty-one people died in New York City on October 23rd, 1918, still the largest single daily death toll in the city’s history.  In Philadelphia the death rate was 700 times higher in October then a normal month, with 11,000 verified flu fatalities.  The last week of October, 1918, from October 23rd to October 31st, has the largest recorded mortality rate in United States history, with 21,000 deaths.  The months of September and October, 1918, also marked the height of the flu panic.

Several cities and communities began to pass laws to try and stem the epidemic.  Laws were passed to keep large crowds from forming, and requiring masks be worn.  Unfortunately it was too little too late. In at least one case led to tragedy when a San Francisco policeman shot and killed a man for not wearing a mask.  There were civil triumphs, as well.  Louis Brownlou, the commissioner of Washington D.C. took the advice of his Public Health Officer Dr. W.C. Fowler, and took decisive action.  He closed schools, and businesses.  He cancelled sporting events, and banned all large public gatherings.  His dramatic action did have an effect.  Only 2,895 residents of Washington died between October, 1918 and February, 1919.

The Influenza epidemic was a full Federal health crisis.  The U.S. Congress allocated a million dollars to fight the flu, but the state of medicine was not able to fully identify the cause of the epidemic.  Microscopy had not advanced enough to identify that it was a virus.  None of the vaccines that were created worked.  The lack of a conclusive answer from science led many people to seek relief from any source.  That opened the door for a widespread trade in ultimately fraudulent cures.  The law that was meant to regulate drugs, The Pure Food and Drug Act, was only twelve years old at the time, and was not strong enough to curtail the sale of proprietary or patent medicines.  The more far reaching Food and Drug Administration was not formed until 1927.  Cure-alls were advertised throughout the country.  Pharmacies sold all manner of treatments, both of the ‘snake-oil’ variety and common medications, like aspirin and vapor rubs.  Many of the patent ‘medicines’ were nothing but alcohol and flavoring.  They may have offered some relief, but ultimately, they were ineffective.

Fortunately, the end of October 1918, also marked the end of the worst of the epidemic in the U.S.  Most historians believe that the flu had run its course, and the most vulnerable to the sickness had either built up immunity or died. The numbers of fatal cases in November 1918 plummet and when crowds gathered to celebrate Armistice Day on November 11th, they were also celebrating the end of the worst of the flu epidemic of 1918.

A typical Influenza ward

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The gauze masks required by many laws were ineffective against the flu virus

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An Influenza information pamphlet in English, Polish, Yiddish, and Italian

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An advertisement for Ka-Tar-No tonic, a typical proprietary medicine

Influenza advertisement for Ka-Tar-No tonic.jpg

Images from: ATrain Education article on the Pandemic Influenza

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A large Armistice Day gathering, November 11th, 1918

Image from The First Armistice Day: The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month, in 1918 by Chris Wild