The 1918 flu pandemic

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 29th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Remembering the 1918 flu pandemic.

100 years ago this fall, a pandemic swept the United States. The disease may have begun on World War I battlefields. A mild version spread throughout spring. But no one was prepared for what happened that fall.

REICHARD: The numbers are staggering. 650,000 Americans died. Up to 100 million deaths worldwide. Despite those astounding numbers, historians for many years overlooked the pandemic. The 20th century offered a long list of terrible events that simply overshadowed it: World War I, The Great Depression, World War 2, Nazi and Soviet atrocities.

But in the last two decades, historians and scientists have been thinking more deeply about the 1918 flu. Today WORLD Radio’s Susan Olasky brings us a historical remembrance.

KOLATA: I was stunned. I had never heard of anything like this. It was the worst infectious disease epidemic in recorded history.

SUSAN OLASKY, REPORTER: Science writer Gina Kolata wrote a book about the 1918 flu, and talked about it with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb.

KOLATA: It killed so many people that if something like that came by today it would kill more people than the top 10 killers wrapped together.

The deadly strain appeared in late summer at Fort Devin near Boston. Healthy young soldiers from all over the country came there before shipping off to war in Europe. Kolata described the scene.

KOLATA: So many young soldiers were dying they had to have special trains to take away the dead. Bodies were stacked up like cordwood. So many dead they had to step over the bodies just to get into the autopsy room.

The virus spread at military bases and other large gatherings, like the Liberty Bond parades held throughout the U.S. that fall. The disease jumped city to city, east coast to west. It hit Philadelphia especially hard. Reba Haimovitz was a child.

HAIMOVITZ: It was a very sad period. There was like a sadness over the city. When you looked out you saw hardly anybody walking around. People stayed in their houses because they were afraid.

The flu killed its victims quickly. Haimovitz recalled one neighbor.

HAIMOVITZ: I remember them telling me that a young neighbor, they saw him coming home. They watched from the window, they watched him coming from work. And then the next afternoon they saw him carried out.

Baltimore was also hard hit. On September 24th, a few cases appeared at nearby Fort Meade. Within just days, 1,900 soldiers were sick. At nearby Fort McHenry, 300. And at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, 15-hundred more.

At first, civilian authorities weren’t worried. The health commissioner said the city needed no special measures. But so many workers fell ill,  businesses had to shut down. Only later did Baltimore ban large gatherings and close the public schools.

Florence Parks was a child in Baltimore during the pandemic. Her father worked at Bethlehem Steel, where many men lived in mill housing.  

PARKS: Leave a man in the morning come back, and he’s dead in the evening. [00:13:41] my mother was sick and everything and they quarantined us. We didn’t visit nobody, and nobody visited us except this lady, Mrs. Kissy Thornton.

By year’s end, Baltimore had 24,000 reported cases. The health commissioner estimated the actual number was three times higher. More than 4,100 died of the disease.

The disease was just as virulent out west. In New Mexico, Carmen Trujillo Portillo was 4 years old. Her midwife mother described people dying, often two or more to a bed.

PORTILLO: It was very hard to keep up with the burying because they were dying so fast. [0:42] The one thing that stayed in my mind because I used to hear it even later was the nailing of boards together making—I called them boxes—coffins for the people.

Some cities acted to contain the disease. They required masks in public. They banned church services. Closed theaters. And nixed parties. But often the measures came too late. By the time officials realized the flu had arrived, people were already dying. One local historian in Pennsylvania compared the flu to a ghost. He said one day doctors in Schuykill County, Pennsylvania, were bragging that there was no flu there.

PORTILLO: And two days later the place was shut down. The county was shut down because miners were hit very very hard. Undertakers were so busy. There was no such thing as caskets. Nobody had caskets. if anything they had a wooden box. Pine box. That was it.

The flu continued like that until it just seemed to burn itself out. By spring 1919 the worst was over. And a stunned nation was trying desperately to forget and rebuild.

MUSIC: Influenza is a disease, makes you weak in all your knees

Tis a fever everybody sure does dread

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Susan Olasky.

MUSIC: Puts a pain in every bone, a few days and you are gone

To a place in the ground called the grave

It was God’s almighty hand; he was judging this old land

North and South, east and west can be seen

Yes, he killed the rich and poor. And he’s goin to kill more

If you don’t turn away from your sins.

EICHER: Part 2 on the 100-year-old pandemic is next week. We will explore its connection to present day. Could it happen again?

(Photo/U.S. Army photographer) Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish influenza at a hospital ward at Camp Funston.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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