Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919

“I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened the window and in flew Enza.”

Children’s Nursery Rhyme, 1918

“Religion which won’t keep for two weeks to save people’s lives is not worth having.”

Public Health Commissioner John S. McBride, M.D., 12 October 1918, Seattle Times.

“Spanish Flu,” was a misnomer since evidence suggests the outbreak began at Fort Riley, Kansas, as a relatively mild flu and mutated into the deadliest pandemic in modern history… to date. The total number of deaths is unknown but estimates are upwards of 500 million – one third of the world’s population at the time – were infected and between 50 and 100 million perished. Deaths from the flu outnumbered the world’s wartime casualties during World War I.

On September 26, 1918, the epidemic arrived in Seattle, with 700 cases and one death reported at the UW’s Naval Training Station. A trainload of already-ill troops had arrived in Seattle from Philadelphia headed for Camp Lewis and Camp Lawton. The virus spread rapidly. Over the next six months, more than 1,600 people died, most between ages 20 and 35, despite the closing of churches, theaters, and schools, including the University of Washington. Public gatherings were prohibited, and six-ply gauze masks were mandated. At the UW, the Women’s Dormitory (now Clark Hall) served as a makeshift hospital for campus cases. Because the disease appeared in Seattle six weeks after it was first seen in East Coast cities, local officials had time to plan to contain the disease.

Despite the public health restrictions, local compliance immediately eroded when Armistice was announced on November 11, 1918. Joyous Seattleites took to the streets in celebration. The mask rule was lifted the next day, and public places reopened. New cases were immediate, and deaths climbed again, peaking on December 9, 1918. Schools reopened in January, and by March no new deaths had been reported. Because of its advance public health measures, Seattle had a death rate was roughly half that of San Francisco and a third of rates in Philadelphia and Baltimore. The Spanish Flu disappeared almost quickly as it appeared and has yet to reappear with such intensity.