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Spanish Flu - 1918


Red Cross members loading Spanish Flu victim into an ambulance The Spanish Flu of 1918 is the last worldwide flu pandemic, with which all subsequent epidemic diseases are compared.  As we concern ourselves today with HIV viruses, ebola virus, recent avian flus and more, it may be appropriate to review just what the last worldwide flu pandemic did. 

In 1918, nobody had a flu vaccine that worked.  Worldwide, it killed perhaps 50,000,000 people, including 675,000 in the United States.  Death tolls from the Spanish Flu in major US cities are as follows:

Baltimore - 6,100
Boston - 6,500
Chicago - 3,800
Cincinnati - 4,100
Cleveland - 4,000
Kansas City - 7,100
Los Angeles - 5,200
Milwaukee - 2,900
Minneapolis - 2,800
New Orleans - 7,200
New York - 4,700
Philadelphia - 7,300
Pittsburg - 8,000
San Francisco - 7,600
St. Louis - 3,000
Washington - 6,600

When you compare the above numbers to the 3,000 killed in New York in the September 11 attacks, you can see just how devastating the flu was in so many cities across the US.



Ironically, the Spanish flu had nothing to do related to Spain.  As historian John M. Barry notes in "The Great Influenza", Spain was neutral in World War I.  As a result of that neutrality, Spain lacked the censorship so prevalent in other European countries in 1918.  To keep morale up, newspapers in countries like Britain, France and Germany, played down bad news, such as the flu.  But, Spanish newspapers freely reported its spread in that country, especially when the disease hit King Alphonse XIII hard.  These accounts were picked up in other countries, the result being that the disease soon became known as the Spanish Flu. 

One health Commissioner's Stand

One health Commissioner's Stand

While the death rates per thousand people soared in most major cities, the death rate in St. Louis of 3.0 per 1,000 was less than half of the rate at the next lowest major city.  Without vaccine, the city had to take exceptional measures.  St. Louis was lucky to have Dr. Max Starkloff as its Health Commissioner and a Mayor in Henry Kiel with guts enough to back up his Health Commissioner.

Starkloff instituted a program that he called "social distancing".  The aldermen passed through a bill that gave the mayor emergency powers.  Kiel eventually issued an emergency declaration that :

  • Closed all schools
  • Shut down theaters
  • Barred public gatherings such as banquets
  • Shuttered churches
  • Stopped dancing in hotels and cafes
  • Suspended hospital visits
  • Kept children from their playgrounds and library reading rooms
  • Canceled conventions
  • Closed streecars to strapholders
  • Canceled Halloween trick-or-treating
  • Judges suspended trials
  • Washington and St. Louis University cancelled sports contests
  • Weddings were put on hold

But the backlash built up.  The Women's Christian Temperance Union complained that churches were closed but bars were open.  Retailers complained the rules were hurting business.  Archbishop, later Cardinal, John Glennon leaned on Starkloff to reopen churches.  Starkloff stood his ground.  Mayor Kiel said "I don't want anyone to die, therefore, I support you".  In contrast, the Kansas City mayor fired his own activist Health Commissioner and Kansas City's death rate soared to more than double that in St. Louis.  In St. Louis, the most deaths in one day were 85, while in Philadelphia, 759 died in one day.  The final St. Louis total, after the flu finally gave out, was 32,000 got sick out of a population of 780,000.

Today, the actions taken in St. Louis 90 years ago, are still studied as an example of what can be done to minimize damage when a disease hits for which there is no known cure.

Source:  St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Harry Levins, Senior Writer

Those Who Died

Those Who Died

Of the records in the Carothers-Carruthers.com data base, here are the following people who died in 1918:

  • George Anderson
  • Fannie K. Barr
  • Mary Ruth Barr
  • George Andrew Carothers
  • Andrew Wesley Cowan
  • Clarence Alonzo Griswold
  • Oliver C. Harris
  • Ella Melson
  • David Peter Van Meter
  • Elmer L. Wilson


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