Compiled by Judy Garrison

(Much of the following is adapted from a New York Times article of March 20, 2020 by Mike Wallace)


New York City’s long history of public health work and eradicating epidemics prepared it quite well for the “Spanish flu” (it hadn’t originated there: the only news came out of Spain as other countries were in the midst of war).  The main brunt of the virus arrived on August 11, 1918 aboard Norwegian vessel Bergensfjord. [A serious incidence of flu in Kansas in the Spring of 1918 was later judged to be the 1st wave; the account here is of the 2nd wave; there was a 3rd wave in the Spring of 1919.] The ship had wired ahead that 10 passengers had taken ill and 3 had died at sea. Another vessel arrived soon after from Holland with 22 stricken and a French liner on September 4 with 22 more. All patients were placed in hospitals, gasping for breath as their lungs filled with fluid. The final punch came on October 4th when 999 new cases arrived, with numbers doubling by October 9th.

A strict quarantine was declared for private houses and apartments when cases developed, but was voluntary in practice. When cases developed in boardinghouses or tenements the patients were removed to city hospitals, armories and gymnasiums, where there was no way to isolate them from one another. Hard hit military installations set up their own facilities.

To de-concentrate the rush on subways and elevated cars the new health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland (formerly dean of a homeopathic medical school and not an M.D.) arranged with businesses to stagger work shifts. Schools were kept open as they were considered to be often more sanitary than housing. School physicians checked children each morning and sick students were sent home. Few children caught the disease and they were able to bring home printed materials for avoiding the flu to their parents.

Copeland announced that approved well-ventilated theaters could stay open if they didn’t allow patrons to cough, sneeze or smoke. The theaters spread education by exhorting audiences to adopt flu prevention methods. Public health education prevailed. By September 24th  10,000 posters were placed everywhere. Leaflets were handed out on the streets. Spitters were brought before courts and fined.

At that time there was no effective medical intervention for doctors to perform, but nurses provided soups, baths, blankets and fresh air until the disease subsided or the patient died.

Lillian Wald, who had pioneered the visiting nurse service, now mobilized a multitude of nurses’ organizations, church groups, municipal bureaucracies, civic entities and social agencies.

Backed up by the Department of Health, in October Copeland established more than 150 emergency health centers in neighborhoods around the city.

Public gathering bans ended on October 25th. From October 26th the number of deaths slackened, then declined. By early November fatality rates returned to typical levels for flu at that time of year.

Roughly 30,000 New Yorkers in the city died of the disease; about 7,500 had died in World War I; actually of the 7,500 soldier deaths, more than 2,000 were due to the disease.  New York’s death rate per 1,000 was 4.7; Boston’s 6.5; Philadelphia’s 7.3. There were no vaccines or drugs available, and the disease primarily hit young, healthy 18-45 year olds.

In the Syracuse Herald amidst typical tips such as “Avoid Crowds,” I spotted:  “Don’t worry: you can worry yourself sick if you let it prey on your mind. The spread of an epidemic is partially caused by a too vivid imagination.” “DON’T COUGH: If you must cough or sneeze, do it into your handkerchief. Don’t spread germs. The man who spreads germs is a pro-German (italics mine)”.~