Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: January 1999 Volume 37 Number 1, Pages 25–31

The Deadly Pandemic of 1918 (When Flu Hit Delaware County)

Harry V. Armitage, M.D.

Page 25

During the fall of 1918, at a critical stage of World War I, as American forces were moving toward German positions in the Argonne forest, a pandemic of influenza swept through the world killing many more Americans within two months than were killed in a year of the war itself. War and disease became intertwined, and the cataclysm that engulfed the world precluded accurate record keeping, but it is believed that more than 21 million people died of influenza before the pandemic came to an end.

Actually, the pandemic had begun in the spring of that year when deceptively mild common flu broke out, first at Camp Funston in Kansas and then at Camps Oglethorpe, Gordon, Doniphan, Freemont, Grant, Lewis Hancock, Shelby and others during March and April. In Europe, epidemic influenza was first observed in the American Expeditionary Force at a camp near Bordeaux, a major port of entry for American troops. During the spring and summer months, the disease was prevalent in troops in the trenches, in camps, and on troopships spreading readily from army to army so that the British and French armies were soon copiously seeded by the flu virus. The Alps and Pyrenees could not hold back the disease, and it easily traversed lofty mountain passes leading to Italy and Spain. Nor did no-man's-land deter its spread to the enemy, and German troops on the Western Front soon fell victim to influenza, known to them as "blitzkatarrh". Spread of the disease in the German army was of such magnitude that General Erich von Ludendorff blamed the failure of a major offensive on poor morale compounded by influenza.

Page 26

During the summer, as the first wave seemed to be subsiding in America, the disease strengthened its hold on Europe and the Old World, extending to Scandinavia and the British Isles. It was known as Spanish Flu everywhere but in Spain, where it was said to have blown across the Pyrenees from French battlefields. Then toward the end of August, with virulent backlash, an intensely contagious second wave spread rapidly throughout the world, reentering the United States through the port of Boston, surfacing at the ports of Brest, France and Freetown, West Africa and extending to Iceland, New Zealand, India, the Philippines, Alaska, Cuba, and Hawaii. In Tahiti nearly twenty percent of the native population died after the disease, borne by steamship passengers, made entry into the island paradise. It ravaged the world and terrified the populace. Primarily, it struck robust adults between twenty and fifty years of age and was frequently accompanied by fulminating pneumonia.

In America, nearly 200,000 died in the epidemic during the months of September, October and November, while during the entire year, by a conservative estimate, 550,000 died. More lives were lost to influenza than were killed in battle during World War I, World War II and the Korean and Vietnamese wars combined. In Philadelphia, the hardest hit of any major American City, 7600 died in fourteen days at the beginning of October. Streetcars were packed with bodies and used as hearses. A shortage of coffins and undertakers necessitated burial in mass graves.

Delaware County, in proximity to Philadelphia, was clearly at risk of epidemic spread with its active war industries, surging population of workers and overcrowded lodgings. Here the epidemic began with unalarming mildness. On a front page devoted primarily to war news, a headline in The Chester Times on September 21, 1918 announced that influenza had hit Chester [City]. The accompanying story mentioned that there were fifty cases in the City. According to local physicians, it was not a very serious malady, being nothing more or less than la grippe. The story implied that "to a certain degree, the disease could be traced to the under­hand work of the despicable Hun."

It soon became evident, however, that the problem was significantly more serious than it had been thought to be initially. During the next week the disease spread rapidly, and by October 1, it was reported that Spanish influenza was sweeping swiftly though the City and that physicians were working day and night treating hundreds of cases. A conference attended by physicians, City Council, the Mayor, and health officials was held to determine methods for prevention of spread of the epidemic.

Page 27

It was suggested by H. C. Donahoo, M.D., head of the Chester Health Department, that schools, churches, hotels, and other places where people congregated be shut down. His opinion was supported by others but was opposed by Dr. J. L. Forwood, the doyen of County surgeons and former mayor. He said it would be more harmful for children to be outside than inside the schools, for the disease was in the air, and that you might as well try to stop a whirlwind as an epidemic.

The issue was debated pro and con with physicians and councilmen taking both sides of the question. The next day Council passed a resolution announcing the closing of all theaters and playhouses, all dance halls, all liquor saloons, all poolrooms, all soda and soft drink fountains, all public and parochial schools, all churches and Sunday schools, and the prohibi­tion of all club and lodge meetings, and all carnivals, parades, and open air meetings. Shortly thereafter the criminal session of County Court in Media was adjourned until such time as the epidemic was over. The Aberfoyle Manufacturing Company closed the entire plant in order to fumigate the buildings and to give its employees a chance to rest and recover.

Despite these precautions the disease continued to spread. The public was advised to go to bed at the earliest sign of illness, to open all the windows in the bedroom, and keep a fire burning in the house. Medicine to open the bowels freely was recommended, along with a diet of simple nourishing food. It was advised that no one be allowed to sleep in the same room with a sick person. To prevent relapse, patients were told to remain in bed until a physician said that it was safe to get up. The use of paper handkerchiefs to protect against spread to others was recom­mended, as was the use of gauze masks by attendants. A headline in the Boston Globe read: "Filter the Smack" and, in the news item that followed, stated that kissing was to be avoided, but those who were unable to control the desire to kiss should kiss through a handkerchief. Hygienic precautions were generally observed, but, in addition, measures of dubious value such as wearing camphor bags around the neck and eating garlic and raw onions came into popular use.

During the next week, the number of new cases increased explosively. On October 4th, five thousand cases were believed to be in the City, and every physician had at least two hundred cases under care. On October 6th, Dr. Donahoo estimated that there were ten thousand cases in the City, and that each doctor was attending two hundred to three hundred and fifty cases. It was reported that virtually the entire corps of cadets at the Pennsylvania Military College had come down with influenza.

Page 28

A one hundred and twenty-five bed emergency hospital, opened in the National Guard Armory, was soon taxed to capacity and an overflow unit in the Odd Fellows Temple became necessary.

A severe shortage of doctors and nurses was aggravated when eight nurses at the Chester Hospital contracted flu. Aid was requested from the state and federal governments, and physicians from the Army and Navy were sent to the City. The Pennsylvania Reserve Militia deployed its Sanitary Squad of fifteen men and eight doctors to Chester. State Health Department nurses were brought in from Reading, which at that time was unaffected by the epidemic; others arrived from Pittsburgh and other parts of the state. However, a dire shortage of nurses continued and private citizens volunteered as attendants of the sick in the emergency hospitals. Requests were made to employers of trained nurses to release them for care of influenza patients.

The munitions plant in Eddystone and the local shipyards were almost paralyzed as workers fell victim to the disease. Many lived in crowded boarding houses and were easy prey to infection. The Health Department found it necessary to issue an order prohibiting the ejection of lodgers who were ill; and, to enforce this edict, the Fuel Administration agreed to stop the delivery of coal to violators. The Emergency Armory Hospital, utilized for treatment of war workers, remained filled to overflow. It was later estimated that of the six hundred patients treated in the Armory during the epidemic, thirty-four percent died or, as Dr. Donahoo said, "went out by the back door."

By October 8th the epidemic seemed to have crested; the number of new cases was decreasing, but the death rate continued to rise. Three days later, while fewer new cases were being reported, more deaths occurred than on any other day of the epidemic. Burial became difficult. White's funeral parlor was used as a mortuary and contained as many as one hundred bodies at one time. There was a shortage of coffins, and pine boxes made at the Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. were used as crude caskets. City Council established a Department of the Disposition of the Dead headed by Colonel Sweeney, a retired army officer, and those who found themselves unable to bury their dead were advised to contact this department. It was estimated that in addition to six hundred deaths in Chester, another five hundred deaths occurred in Delaware County during the epidemic. At one point three hundred and forty-five boxes of dead were stacked at the Lawn Croft Cemetery in Linwood, and finally a steam shovel was brought in to dig a common grave for mass burial.

Page 29

The epidemic in Chester [City] and Delaware County lasted about five weeks, gradually disappearing in mid-October, with sporadic cases occurring during the early months of 1919. It can be assumed that, during the epidemic, the majority of people in the community had been exposed to the disease and as mass immunity built, the epidemic came to an end. The same sequence of events occurred in other parts of the world, but the chronological end of the epidemic was not easy to determine, for a trail of new cases extended into 1919 and possibly the early part of 1920. Thus ended one of the most virulent pandemics in recorded history. When deaths in the tropics are estimated and added to other recorded deaths, it probably killed many more than 21 million people. The world-wide toll may well have been 30 million.

In 1918, Pfeiffer's bacillus was considered the most likely cause of influenza. Today, it has been firmly established that the causative agent for influenza is a virus capable of singular mutability. The 1918 virus is believed to have been a swine flu mutant of ephemeral nature. In the intervening years, many strains have been studied, but the 1918 virus has not been found. Assuming that bodies buried in permafrost may be cryogenically preserved, attempts have been made to retrieve the virus from corpses of flu victims. In 1951 bodies were exhumed from the Seward Peninsula in Alaska, but only bacteria were recovered; the virus could not be found. However, last year the 1918 flu genes were isolated from formaldehyde preserved lung tissue removed from an army private who had died at Fort Jackson in 1918.

This year The New York Times (February 8, 1998) reported that Dr. Johan Hultin, a retired pathologist, exhumed four bodies of 1 918 flu victims from a mass grave in Brevig Mission, Alaska. He found that one corpse, that of an obese woman, was well preserved and that tissue samples from the lungs could be obtained. Researchers at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology have found that these samples contained genetic material from the 1918 flu virus.

Study of the genetic pattern of the Spanish Flu virus may help to explain its lethality, and possibly be of use in preparation of a vaccine should the virus make a return. Modern knowledge of virology and the ability to develop effective vaccines have proven to be of value in epidemic control. However, vaccination does not confer immediate immunity; and, because of the astonishing contagiousness of Spanish flu, its apparition is a re­minder that it might again encompass the world in another pandemic.

Page 30


Crosby, Alfred W. America's Forgotten Pandemic
(Cambridge University Press 1989)

The New York Times February 8, 1998

The Chester Times September 21, 1918 through October 17, 1918

In Chester county, the effects of the 1918 influenza epidemic were somewhat muted but struck with characteristic suddenness. On Saturday evening September 28, a large crowd, said to be nearly 5000, thronged West Chester to participate in a rally in front of the Court House opening the Fourth Liberty Loan drive. By mid-week, four days later, the effects of the flu were being felt. Public gatherings were banned, schools and churches closed, and most businesses which had public accommodations ceased operations. The Local News of October 7 published "A Call to Chester County Women - Immediate Service Demands that You Respond Without Delay in Order to Meet Most Urgent Needs." The article under this heading explained:

"The influenza epidemic has reached such proportions here in West Chester that our physicians report most urgent need for a large number of nurses. Both hospitals are filled to the limit and an emergency hospital is about to be opened. The situation in other near by towns and cities is equally bad, and many calls for assistance have been received. Will every woman in the county who is willing to aid in this emergency immediately send her name to the Director of Registration, Woman's Committee, Council National Defense, Farmers and Mechanics Trust Building, West Chester. State whether you are willing to go and take up residence where needed, expenses paid, or whether you will work only in your own community. There is also a field for those who can devote only a part of each day to the work. The Department of Registration will see to placing you at once, as we are equipped with stenographers, telephone and lists of physicians. Here is an opportunity for patriotic service in work for which most women are specially fitted through generations of practical training. Will not the women of Chester county respond nobly and promptly?
Mrs. Chester P. Martindale
County Director of Registration"

As quickly as its appeared, the flu abated. The newspaper clipping file at the Chester County Historical Society contains no mention of an unduly large number of deaths. Perhaps Chester county was sufficiently distant from the population centers of Philadelphia and Chester to escape the harshest effects of the flu.

Page 31

Traditionary stories tell of Dr. James Aiken of Berwyn working heroically treating the ill. It is said that he would stop at the Walker Drug Store next door to his home and leave with Mrs. Walker (Agnes Rynd Walker), the pharmacist, a list of people who needed care. When the drug store closed at eleven o'clock, she would make the rounds tending the sick. Dr. Aiken was 70 years old and may have been affected by the stress of this apocalyptic time for he died soon after in 1920.

A review of Berwyn's Trinity Church session minute book for 1918 shows an unusually long interval of time between meetings -- from July to De­cember -- in 1918, but there is no mention of the flu. Likewise, there are no reports of deaths recorded in the September-October period.

In a conversation a year or two ago with the late John Alleva, a former resident of Cedar Hollow, he mentioned that his father, who operated a bakery there, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. This is the only documented death of which we have knowledge.

The good news of peace brought rejoicing and celebration on November 11, 1918. (An erroneous armistice report on the 8th, three days earlier, had also set off a parade and celebration.) The bloody war was over, and in the euphoria the short, swift but deadly influenza epidemic was soon forgotten. (Herb Fry)

Field Hospital -- U.S. Army, 1918


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