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1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic


The Spanish Flu lasted from March 1918 to 1919. World War I contributed greatly to the spreading of the disease as transported soldiers spread the disease from port to port. Deaths often occurred overnight after the initial onslaught of symptoms. The number of deaths from this epidemic vary, having only recently been revised even higher to between 50 and 100 million casualties. In Chicago alone, over 8,500 people died1

The Spanish Flu, named because Spain was one of the hardest hit countries, was highly unusual in that it struck the healthiest parts of the population - the 20-40 year age group. Though not completely understood, preventive measures were taken by officials to limit contact between individuals - theaters, lodges and dance halls for example were closed, though churches and schools remained opened. Wearing masks was encouraged. Smoking was prohibited in places to prevent spitting in public, and those caught spitting were arrested.

By the end of December 1918, the worst was over2.

A third wave of the Spanish flu, much less devastating than its predecessors, moved through the state in early 1919

[The above information is a compilation of information found on the websites of DePaul University, OK State University and the Chicago Public Library]

Some Illinois Casualties


1918 Spanish Flu Timeline (thanks to TWOOP Timelines for the excerpts we present below)

March 11, 1918: Army Pvt. Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas reports to the camp hospital complaining of fever, sore throat, and headache. Before the day is over, over 100 soldiers fall sick.

A week later, 522, cases had been reported at Fort Riley in what would be the mildest of the flu's three waves. Forty-six died at Fort Riley that spring

Sept. 24, 1918: Edward Wagner, newly transplanted from Chicago, falls ill with the flu. This flies in the face of San Francisco public health officials who had played down the threat of the flu to the public.

Mid-Oct.: In a single day, 851 New Yorkers die. The death rate in Philly for the period of a single week is 700 times the average. The Chicago crime rate drops 43 percent.

Oct. 31 1918: Because of the Influenza Pandemic that grips the nation, most Halloween celebrations are canceled due to quarantines. One Illinois paper reports: "The ghost parties, masquerades and dances which have always been so popular at this time of the year, are as scarce as the corn and eggs, not because of Mr. Hoover, but because of Mr. Influenza. Many parties which have been planned for Friday and Saturday night have been postponed as the quarantine will not be lifted before next Monday. But not all of the Halloween spirit has been killed by the influenza. Crowds of boys and girls have been using ticktacks on the windows, tearing down gates and and beating the porches with planks , for the last three nights, and they are all prepared to be out tonight, so be not surprised if you hear mysterious noise tonight."

End of October: October 1918 ends up being the deadliest month in the history of the United States, with 195,000 Americans succumbing to the influenza.

Nov. 3, 1918: The News of the World prints some suggested flu precautions: "Wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply; do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work; eat plenty of porridge."

Nov. 11, 1918: Armistice is announced and World War I comes to an end. Though much of the joy is weighed down by the epidemic, people around the world venture out into the streets for the first time in order to celebrate. Many go out without their masks for the first time, leading to a surge in influenza cases in many cities for weeks after the Armistice.

By the end of December 1918, the worst was over
2. A third wave of the Spanish flu, much less devastating than its predecessors, moved through the state in early 1919

1927: It is estimated that 21.5 million people died during the 1918 epidemic.

1991: Revising the 1927 estimate that 21.5 million people died during the 1918 epidemic, researches recalculate the numbers at 30 million.

1997: Using lung tissue taken 79 years earlier during the autopsy of a U.S. Army private who died of the 1918 flu, scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology analyze the 1918 virus and conclude that it is a unique virus but is related to the "swine flu." According to one researcher: "The hemagglutinin gene matches closest to swine influenza viruses, showing that this virus came into humans from pigs." (Science, March 21, 1997)

2002: The Bulletin of the History of Medicine reports that the estimate of the numbers dead from the 1918 epidemic has again been revised. The newest estimate is that between 50 million and 100 million died.

Feb. 6, 2004: Researchers working separately at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California and at Britain's Medical Research Council discover that the 1918 virus may have jumped directly from birds to humans rather than going from birds to pigs and then infecting humans. They say it explains why the 1918 strain was so deadly, since human immune systems aren't prepared for viruses coming directly from birds.

Oct. 2005: Using a technique called reverse genetics, scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology recreate the 1918 virus. They recovered the genome information from a flu victim who had been buried in Alaskan permafrost since 1918.



OCTOBER 17, 1918

Local News Items

Yesterday's daily papers say that there are 300,000 cases of flu in Illinois. The closing of schools, churches, fraternal societies, places of amusement and all other places for public gatherings is general throughout the state.


(Special to Henry Republican)

Chicago, Oct. 15 -- The results of a state wide survey by telegraph of every Illinois community of 1,000 population or over, given out here tonight by Dr. C. St. Clari Drake, director of the state department of public health, show that 227 cities and towns in Illinois have been hit by the epidemic of Spanish influenza. The number of cases reported in these communities in 55,725 of which 17,943 are in Chicago, and 37,782 down state. There have been 2,264 deaths from influenza and pneumonia in Chicago and 491 in the down state communities which have been reported.

Convinced that the epidemic had reached proportions which required prompt and vigorous measures, the state department of health has ordered that all theaters, including moving picture shows, all night schools, all lodges and all places of public amusement, closed until the epidemic subsides. All public schools which are lacking in adequate medical and nursing supervision were included in the order.

"From the information we now have", said Dr. Drake, "we believe that every community in Illinois will be affected by influenza before the epidemic subsides. On the basis of the reports which reached us today, we estimate that there are now more than 170,000 cases in the state outside of Chicago.

An analysis of the influenza situation in Chicago today shows that the epidemic has not reached its crest here. Fore the week ending September 28, there were 598 cases reported in Chicago with 176 deaths. During the week ending October 7 there were 6,106 cases reported with 627 deaths. The week which ended October 14 produced 11,239 cases and 1,461 deaths. The total number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia in Chicago during the past three weeks was 2,264 compared with an average of 156 for the same period during the past five years.

Although the situation is bad in many down state communities, it will get worse before it gets better, according to members of the state influenza commission, which meets daily. The town of Assumption in Christian county, with a population of 1,918 has reported 500 cases and has called for help. There are only four doctors and one registered nurse in the town.

Greenup, with a population of 1,224, reported 400 cases. Two doctors live in Greenup and both are ill with influenza. Peoria reports 10,000 cases and Rockford 6,000. In Peoria two emergency hospitals have been equipped, and in Rockford, medical help has been loaned from Camp Grant, where the epidemic is rapidly being brought under control.

More than 1,200 cases have been reported in Kankakee. Cairo reports 500. Marengo, with a population of 1,872, reported 496 and has asked for the help of outside doctors and nurses. Nokomis, which has a population of 1,973 has reported over 600 cases with no hospital facilities available. Bloomington reports 1,200 cases with 11 deaths.

The state health department urges extreme care in order to prevent, so far as possible, the needless further spread of the contagion. All persons are warned to keep away from crowds, to avoid the person who sneezes, coughs and spits without covering the face with a cloth, and to consult a physician immediately upon the first symptoms of what may seem to be an ordinary cold.


1Source: DePaul University website
2 Source:

Links to Flu-Related Websites (off-site link)

Cool Map showing the spread of the disease (off-site link)

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