How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918
How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918

How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918

Larry Holzwarth - April 2, 2020

How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918
State and local governments led the fight against the flu, unimpeded by Washington. Wikimedia

19. The American government downplayed the flu

As the Spanish flu emerged in America, the federal government downplayed the danger. President Wilson and his administration stressed the need for Americans to support the war effort, especially during the first wave. Information regarding the dangers from the flu, already suppressed by wartime censorship, remained sketchy. State and local officials faced the rising numbers of ill and dying with little to no federal support. Even those already ill were urged to report to work, and those who chose to remain at home were belittled for their lack of patriotic duty. Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, did not address the issue of the sickness ravaging the country. He simply said nothing.

His government, determined to maintain war production and the strength of the American economy, urged Americans to report to work. Across the country efforts to control the crisis by local authorities drew the disparagement of the federal government where it affected war production. The absence of national leadership gave rise to con men posing as medical experts, offering cures for the flu. One such huckster, Franklin Duane, who claimed to be a medical doctor, offered pills he called “Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets”. Along with the pills, Duane suggested a positive attitude offered protection against the flu. He was but one of many who profited from the tragedy, while the federal government did nothing to prevent the sale of placebos offered as “cures”.

How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918
A hospital admissions book listing patients for the last week of 1918. National Archives

20. The press downplayed the Spanish Flu

The most volatile period of the Spanish Flu, the second wave during the autumn of 1918, coincided with the peak of American combat involvement during the First World War. The press ignored the virus in favor of war coverage. On October 3, 1918 – a Thursday – 191 people died in Boston, according to the records of the Boston Globe. The total appeared on the newspaper’s front page the following morning, framed by two stories about the war, both of which featured much larger typeface, and both of which contained the inflammatory reference to the Germans popular at the time. They referred to them as “Huns”. The story about the casualties in Boston said that the nearly 200 persons had died of the “grippe”.

The Boston newspapers printed Friday, October 4, 1918, reported little regarding the crisis beyond the existence of the seasonal flu. The Boston Post reported, “Health authorities are encouraged that the increase is but a small one”, in reference to the number of deceased the preceding day. Instead, the several newspapers of the flu stricken city focused their attention on the Boston community’s failure to meet its goals in the sale of Liberty Bonds to support the war. Another story in the Boston Globe reported the governor of Massachusetts’ request to the federal government to cancel the ban on driving automobiles on Sunday (a wartime savings measure). In his plea, Governor Samuel McCall referenced the flu, and claimed driving in fresh air would help citizens, because “fresh air and sunshine will enable them to better fight the grippe”.

How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918
Most Americans ignored the spread of the flu until it appeared within their own communities. Green Bay Press Gazette

21. Average Americans didn’t know of the illness until it reached their community

The American people were less informed in 1918. Most of what they knew about world events and social situations came from the gossip of their neighbors and the content of their local newspapers. There was no 24-hour news cycle, no daily press conferences from national leaders, nor even local authorities. Philadelphia’s problems were of little concern to residents of Cleveland. The flu was a seasonal event, best handled locally by doctors and nurses. Locals had tried and true methods of combating it, which were used every flu season as they had been for generations.

When the flu struck it was a local event in the eyes of most Americans, not another step in a global battle. Its severity was stunning, and many communities experienced a backlash against the local authorities’ failure to contain it, but it they were short-lived. One of the most memorable factors of the Spanish Influenza is that it was almost completely forgotten. Newspapers reported it as it occurred and ignored it after it was over in their area. The global impact of the Spanish Flu all but vanished from the record. It became the forgotten disaster, unworthy of mention as just another bout of the flu which occurred during wartime. The 50 million losses became part of the casualties of the First World War.

How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918
The Creel Committee controlled the information given to the press and the people during World War I and the outbreak. National Archives

22. The US government made truth a victim

In 1917 the Wilson Administration created the Committee for Public Information. Its purpose was to monitor all information made available to the public regarding the conduct of the war, and the activities of the federal government. It was headed by George Creel, and became known as the Creel Committee. Creel believed that there existed little difference between telling the truth and outright lying to the public, as long as the desired ends were achieved. The Creel Committee decided what could and could not be reported to the American public about the war, both overseas and in the effort to support it at home. Under emergency measures rammed through Congress by the Wilson Administration, violating the strictures of the Creel Committee became sedition.

The federal government made little comment regarding the flu, leaving its control to the several states, which for the most part allowed municipal and county governments to lead the fight against the silent threat. Wilson’s government did encourage Americans to continue to work, to increase production, and to participate in Liberty Bond drives and rallies. The government also supported recruiting rallies. It was aware of the high rate of infection at military bases and aboard ships, and deliberately censored the reporting of such information in the communities which supported them. For the federal government, this catastrophe was treated simply as a rendition of the seasonal flu.

How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918
Celebrating the Armistice in Reno, Nevada, meant donning protection against the flu. National Archives

23. The American economy recovered quickly

Because the shutdowns of businesses across the country were sporadic and staggered, the overall economy suffered little during the Spanish Flu, at least in the United States. The brief economic downturn which marked the beginning of the 1920s affected returning servicemen, but within a few months American industry produced consumer goods at previously unforeseen levels. About 875,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu, more than 12 times the fatalities suffered by the American military during the World War. The average life expectancy for Americans dropped by about ten years. The economy barely faltered.

Prior to these events of 1918, America suffered numerous epidemics of dangerous diseases, including other bouts with influenza. Following this tragedy, other diseases continued to claim American lives annually, including tuberculosis, polio, cholera, yellow fever, scarlet fever, measles, malaria, and others. The Spanish Flu rapidly became part of the past, to the point it earned the sobriquet of the forgotten flu. The manner in which it appeared and swept the country remained hidden to the general public until recent events brought it back to the forefront of public attention. A century after this grim chapter in history, Americans again find themselves urged to self-isolate and avoid crowds. At the same time some Americans claim that we have never faced anything like the current situation before. They are wrong.

How the U.S. Dealt with the Spanish Flu of 1918
Red Cross litter bearers in Washington, DC, in 1918. National Archives

24. The lesson of the Spanish flu

The Spanish flu struck the United States as the nation was reaching its peak of mobilization during the First World War. Railroads teemed with relocating troops, harbors and ports were crowded with ships and sailors. Factories operated at full capacity. At the time flu was not known to be a virus, transmission by contact with contaminated surfaces had not been identified. In other words, it was a mysterious and previously unknown illness, which struck far more viciously than previously seen strands of seasonal flu. Americans at all levels were completely unprepared for its virulence, and watched with stunned helplessness as it killed seemingly at random.

Since these events, vaccines for flu and medicines to mitigate its symptoms appeared, both through prescriptions and over the counter compounds. Meanwhile, new strands of the flu continue to appear, as well as other viruses and illnesses which could easily reach these out of control proportions if the public is not informed of their existence and their propensity to spread. Medical knowledge advanced immensely in the century since the flu of 1918. That year and around the world into 1920, a respiratory illness caused by a novel virus claimed millions worldwide, while leaders suppressed knowledge of its existence. Some even opposed efforts to contain it out of financial and political concerns. Nothing more dramatically demonstrates the need to learn from history.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Aaron Kassraie, AARP. March 20, 2020. Online

“How U. S. Cities Tried to Halt the Spread of the 1918 Spanish Flu”. Dave Roos, March 11, 2020

Dr. Carol R. Byerly, Public Health Reports, National Institute of Health. 2010. Online

Article, US Centers for Disease Control. Online

Christopher Klein, October 5, 2018

“The Flu in San Francisco”. Article, The American Experience. PBS. Online

“2 cities handled this health crisis different. The results couldn’t have been more opposite”. Report, St. Louis. ClickOrlando Online

Dave Roos, March 3, 2020

Andrew Rettman, EU Observer. March 30, 2020

Mike Wallace, The New York Times. March 20, 2020

“Cincinnati, Ohio”. Article, Influenza Encyclopedia. Online

Jack Lepiarz, WBUR, Boston. March 11, 2020

Dr. Nancy Tomes, Public Health Reports, National Institutes of Health. Online

Paul Ratner, Big Think. March 7, 2020

Gary Finnegan, Vaccines Today. October 24, 2018

Martin Kettle, The Guardian. May 25, 2018

“Rampant Lies, Fake Cures and Not Enough Beds; What the Spanish Flu Debacle Can Teach Us About Coronavirus”. Joshua Zeitz, Politico. March 17, 2020

Walter Shapiro, New Republic. March 31, 2020

Gina Kolata. 1999