Flu Epidemic of 1918

Depiction of the flu attacking a woman in a 1916 Utah newspaper. Click to expand. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1918 one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history occurred in the form of a destructive new flu strain. Nicknamed the Spanish flu because of its geographical origins, this deadly virus killed up to 100 million people throughout the world.  Spokane braced for the worst as the epidemic spread across the US and began appearing along the coast in the Pacific Northwest. In Fall of 1918, Spokane newspapers began reporting on the virus spreading across the country.  Within a few days the Spokesman Review went from announcing over one hundred influenza related deaths on the east coast, to reporting the virus’ advancement to Camp Lewis, Washington on September 21.

Kenneth Knoll of Spokane, pictured in the middle at the age of 12 surrounded by his two sisters in 1918.  All three evaded the flu that year.

By October 4th, 137,975 cases of the flu had been reported including over 2000 death in the military.1  In the middle of October, as the soldiers at Fort Lewis faced over 100 cases of the flu and a number of deaths, Spokane began to take measures to combat the threat.  The city health officer, Dr. J.B Anderson, announced the closure of public meeting places throughout the city at the first sign of the flu. On the 10th of October the Spokesman Reported “Spokane is in the grip of a modern plague. Unlike ancient days, there are no bonfires in the streets, no praying crowds of people in the churches, no burning of weird concoctions of spices and vinegar or sprinkling salt on flame. Instead, there are no churches open, no movies, no schools, no parties, no public weddings. Even funerals that desire to be imposing may only continue if the band is hitched outside the church during the service.”2

Despite all the measures the city took, the flu eventually took Spokane by storm.  With many of the nurses away for the war, Spokane’s health resources buckled under the escalating number of cases.  Between October 30th and the 31st alone, 400 new cases were reported.  Another sharp spike of around the same number of cases occurred later in December.  The 1918 flu infected communities in a particularly aggressive way.  Unlike most strains of the flu, which typically kill the very young or the very old, this strain an especially high number of healthy adults. Out of the 428 Spokane victims of the virus between October 12th, 1918 and March 15, 1919, 252 of the deaths were men and women between the ages of 20 and 39.3 In one reported case, a couple both died within hours of one another while their child, born 6 days prior, survived.4

The virus took a toll on daily life throughout the city.  Many businesses suffered economically, due both to a sick public and organizational limits imposed on them by the city.  Theaters, for example, were only allowed to provide a certain amount of seating to the public during the epidemic.  Schools were closed, then reopened, and then closed again as spikes of infection occurred over the months.  Almost 11% of the city became ill with the virus, and of the roughly 11,000 infected, 562 people died.5

 

Sources

  1. Knoll, Kenneth. When the Plague Hit Spokane. Spokane, WA: Pacific Northwesterner, 1989.
  2. “Flu’ Brings Woe to Dr. Anderson.” Pathways to History. Accessed February 20, 2018. http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/Pathways/unit-plans/influenza/influenza-archive/newspaper/anderson.html.
  3. Caldbick, John. “The 1918 “Spanish Flu” Pandemic in Washington.” History Link. March 23, 2017. Accessed March 1, 2018. http://www.historylink.org/File/20300.
  4. “Father, Mother Die; Baby Lives: Mr. and Mrs. F. Redick Succumb 7 Hours Apart-Influenza.” Pathways to History. Accessed February 20, 2018. http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/Pathways/unit-plans/influenza/influenza-archive/newspaper/father-mother.html.
  5. “Spokane Washington.” The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-spokane.html#.