The Flu Pandemic Of 1918-1919

Apr 29, 2020

The current Covid-19 crisis is a difficult experience for everyone, but not the first time something like this has happened. The Influenza Epidemic that started in 1918 and lasted into 1920 can be instructive for what is going on now. Historian Gary Entz has the story.

While the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus is often called the Spanish Flu, it is not certain where the illness originated. What we do know is that it first appeared in the early months of 1918 among military troops fighting in the trenches of World War I. By March, the disease was in the United States, spreading out from Ft. Riley, Kansas, and other military bases.

Major urban areas were hit hardest first, and responses were localized. Cities like Philadelphia, which allowed public gatherings and took few precautions, got hit hard, whereas cities like San Francisco, which shut down businesses and mandated the wearing of masks in public, were largely spared in the first wave. San Francisco, however, lifted its quarantine too early and got hammered in the pandemic’s second wave.

The flu entered Wisconsin with the first wave, but the Northwoods only had a few isolated reports of the disease. When summer arrived, people thought they were safe; that is, until the second wave hit in the fall of 1918. Cases began showing up in September, and by October the entire region was in the grip of the epidemic. By the end of October, towns across the Northwoods were each reporting hundreds of cases and numerous deaths. Non-essential businesses were ordered closed. Despite the lockdown, politicians ignored safety concerns and asked people to go to the polls for a special primary election to choose candidates for the 11th Congressional District.

In Rhinelander, the schools were closed, and teachers were furloughed with pay. The flu pandemic got so bad that caregivers took over the high school and converted it into a makeshift hospital for the sick. Individual homes with confirmed flu victims were quarantined. However, by March 1919 the worst was apparently over, and most people hoped that life could return to normal. In Washington, the Surgeon-General confidently predicted that the public had no need to fear a renewed outbreak. The influenza epidemic has come and gone for good, he said.

People relaxed their guard, and in January 1920 the flu roared back with a vengeance. By early February, most Northwoods businesses where people gathered in groups, places like movie houses and Dance Halls, were mandated closed. National Prohibition, which took effect on January 17, had an added impact as people crowded into bars and saloons in late January before they were forced to permanently close. Rhinelander even held a celebratory “Dry Day” banquet and public jubilee, which attracted large crowds.

In late February health officials were assuring people in the Northwoods that the worst was over, and that business could go back to normal. By the end of March, the flu did abate, but so much was different. Families who lost loved ones were rent in two [], while many businesses where an owner died either changed hands or disappeared entirely. []

This is not an easy path we are on right now, but if the experience of one hundred years ago teaches us anything it is not to assume that a pandemic is just going to go away without extraordinary effort on our part.