This Week Then: Fighting Flu in 1918

Looking back at the Spanish Flu pandemic and its effects in Washington state
| Updated: March 12, 2020
Courtesy HistoryLink

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Combating the Flu

This week HistoryLink looks back at the 1918 flu pandemic and its effects in Washington state. The disease was misnamed the "Spanish" flu because that country—which didn't participate in World War I—freely reported an early outbreak that even sickened its king, while the combatant nations, for reasons of secrecy and morale, tried to conceal the existence and severity of the scourge.

The warring nations not only withheld information about the flu, but also were key to its rapid spread. In April 1918, some of the earliest cases of a particularly vicious flu were reported in Kansas, where waves of soldiers were passing through Fort Riley on their way overseas. By late summer the flu had spread throughout Europe and beyond, bringing death to every nation in the world—except American Samoa, where the governor imposed an early and rigorous quarantine. American Samoa suffered no flu fatalities; Western Samoa, barely 50 miles distant, lost 20 percent of its population.

The first official acknowledgment of the Spanish flu's arrival in Washington came in September 1918 with the report of 11 cases at Camp Lewis near Tacoma. Within two weeks, 700 cases were reported in Seattle, including one death at the University of Washington's Naval Training Center. Schools soon closed, and public gatherings were canceled throughout the state, including the 1919 Stanley Cup Final, in which the Seattle Metropolitans were fighting to regain the trophy they had won in 1917

Before It Was Through

On January 1, 1919, the Washington State Board of Health delivered a grim biennial report that was itself delayed because of the pandemic. It noted that an early quarantine could have hindered the spread of the flu virus, but at the time the U.S. Surgeon General did not recommend it. The report included preliminary numbers of known cases of the flu, and of those who had died from it. More than half of those who succumbed were between the ages of 20 and 49, a disproportionate toll in a usually healthy demographic.

In late spring of 1919, the virus began to disappear as mysteriously as it had arrived, but by then it had killed more people in less time than any other disease in recorded history, a dismal record that still stands. Nearly 5,000 people died in Washington, and while the death toll was highest in the state's most populous cities—1,441 deaths in Seattle, and 428 in Spokane—the pandemic touched nearly every community. Outside of Washington, the numbers were even more staggering. More than 500,000 people died nationwide and estimates of the worldwide death toll range as high as 100 million.

But numbers don't tell the human story behind the tragedy. We end our examination of the 1918 pandemic with a look back at three lives affected by its course: singer Linnie Love, who was stricken while performing for troops at Camp Lewis; journalist Emmett Watson, who was orphaned shortly after his birth in 1918; and noted author Mary McCarthy, who lost her parents to the disease and later wrote of the difficulties she faced afterward.

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