Influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 on my Tragedy and Comedy in New England blog last week. With the H1N1 flu and the regular flu season upon us, references are inevitably made to that mysterious pandemic which killed over 50 million people around the world. That flu likely had its origins at a Kansas military base in the spring of 1918, but by the autumn, Boston had noticed beginnings of the epidemic.
Navy physician Lt. (jg) J.J. Keegan was one of he earliest doctors puzzled by the new illness in August, 1918. Stationed at the Chelsea Naval Hospital, he began to see the wards filled with sailors of the First Naval District. The illness spread with frightening speed, and moved quickly beyond the service personnel into the civilian population by September. More than 1,000 died in Boston by the end of that month.
Navy personnel reported the first cases in New London, Connecticut on September 11th. By the end of October, there were over 180,000 cases in Connecticut. Boston’s situation was so severe, that an urgent plea was made for Connecticut doctors and nurses to come help. Similarly in Maine, naval ports of call such as Eastport and Portland were the first to receive reports of the illness.
New Hampshire suffered less than the other New England states, with more deaths occurring in the cities of Manchester and Nashua than in rural areas. Vermont, though similarly predominantly rural, suffered a greater outbreak of the illness. Rhode Island suffered about 50 days per day from September through November.
People nationwide were starting to die by the thousands. According to the excellent material here on the National Archives website on the epidemic, one-quarter of the U.S. population caught that flu, and the national life expectancy dropped 12 years. More information, including individual stories, is here on the website of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (including photos such as the one taken at Ft. Devens, Mass. above).
The epidemic, also called The Spanish Flu, killed more people than died in World War I. A strange and horrific finale to that war, this major disaster seemed to have been omitted from the study of popular history for decades, at least until new threats of the past few years with swine flu and avian flu made the old specter raise its head. We learned then, and need to remember now, that the best way to fight the flu is to take care not to spread it.