was the end of the summer in 1918 in Philadelphia, a city of a million
and a half people.
World War I, "the war to end all wars," was
drawing to a close as the British crossed the Hindenburg Line. At the
University of Pennsylvania, drilling, uniforms, and war courses were the
order of the day for 2,240 students of draft age who had been inducted
into the Students' Army Training Corps (SATC), a federal program designed
to prepare young men as officers. Penn's dormitories and fraternity houses
served as barracks. By order of Major Charles T. Griffith, the officer
in charge of the program, the University's daily newspaper, The Pennsylvanian,
had been placed under military authority and served as the official
bulletin of the SATC.
In Philadelphia, it was business as usual. People were flocking
to the long-running British musical Chu Chin Chow at the Shubert
Theater, Jerome Kern's Leave It to Jane at the Chestnut
Street Opera House, and John Philip Sousa's Liberty Loan concert at Willow
Grove Park. Everyone was sure it was just a matter of time until "the
boys came home." No one was paying much attention to the account
of an unusual sickness reported earlier in the year by a Spanish wire
service to Reuter's London headquarters: "A strange form of disease
of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid."
Within a short time, eight million Spaniards were ill
with what was to be named the "Spanish influenza." Fueled by
troop movements, it spread like wildfire across Europe, the Mideast, and
Asia. By the summer of 1918, the "Spanish Lady" had reached
American soil. In 120 days, more than half of the world's population would
fall victim to the influenza pandemic, and nearly 22 million would die
The disease began with a cough, then increasing pain
behind the eyes and ears. Body temperature, heart rate, and respiration
escalated rapidly. In the worst cases, pneumonia quickly followed. The
two diseases inflamed and irritated the lungs until they filled with liquid,
suffocating the patients and causing their bodies to turn a cyanotic blue-black.
In Pennsylvania, the influenza epidemic began almost
unnoticed in the middle of September. First a few cases, and then the
numbers began to rise rapidly. Worried state health authorities decided
to add influenza to the list of reportable diseases. Their concern increased
when 75,000 cases were reported statewide. The worst was still ahead.
Philadelphia was about to become the American city with
the highest death toll in one of the three worst epidemics in recorded
Philadelphia newspapers and The Pennsylvanian
chronicled the passage of the "Spanish Lady" day-by-day through
city and campus.
November/December Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 10/28/98