The Flu of 1918 (continued)
Philadelphia, October 17: 1,686 new cases, 711 deaths.
The city's hospitals are placed under police supervision,
with patrol cars serving as ambulances. The Red Cross Home Service, besieged
by servicemen overseas for information about their families, frequently
sends no reply. The families do not wish them to know their loved ones
Countless deeds of charity help rescue the forgotten
members of society -- the destitute, the orphaned, the retarded, and the
friendless. Sisters of the Holy Child comfort and care for youngsters
in a West Philadelphia home for "backward children" after all
the staff have fled. Emergency Aid members visit shabby boarding houses
where hundreds lie ill with no one to assist them and arrange for their
A man who sneezed is forcibly ejected from a trolley
by his fellow passengers.
Little girls jump rope to a grim new rhyme:
I had a little bird
And its name was Enza
I opened the door
At Penn, football games with Swarthmore and the Marines
are canceled. The Christian Association issues an urgent call for more
Philadelphia, October 20: 1,334 new cases, 606 deaths.
Philadelphians note the latest count in reported
cases. Is the epidemic waning?
Dr. Franklin Royer, acting Pennsylvania Commissioner
of Health, says no: "For a five-year period, the state's daily
average death rate in October from influenza,la grippe, and pneumonia
combined is less than 30. Yet Philadelphia continues to report hundreds
of deaths daily."
Dr. J. Solis-Cohen says yes: "The progress of the
influenza epidemic should be noted from the number of new cases and not
from the number of deaths."
Dr. Solis-Cohen is right.
As quickly as the epidemic had come, it left.
Churches reopened on October 27 in Philadelphia. Schools,
theaters, vaudeville houses, and bars followed in quick succession.
Penn's Dental School reopened. Delta Psi house and Phi
Kappa Psi house, used as emergency hospitals, became a barracks and a
naval officers' mess hall, respectively. Penn student volunteers returned
to their studies.
The passage of the "Spanish Lady" through
the streets of Philadelphia left in its wake 12,191 reported deaths and
47,094 reported cases in four weeks and a business community crippled
by revenue-losses in the millions. Among Penn's 5,000 students, there
had been four deaths and 312 cases reported.
World War I killed 15 million people in four years;
the Spanish flu killed perhaps twice that number worldwide in six months.
It killed more Americans than all combat deaths of this century combined.
No other disease has killed so many so fast. Yet the collective amnesia
regarding the pandemic is astonishing. Today most Americans know more
about the Black Death of medieval times than they do about the 1918 flu.
One question still haunts medical science: Where did
the virus come from and where did it go after 1918? Some believe that
a mild hog flu virus combined with an equally mild Pfeiffer bacillus in
a synergetic process, producing a killer that injured human lungs beyond
their capacity to recover -- but no one knows for certain.
Eileen A. Lynch is a writer and editor. She was formerly
a research specialist in epidemiology at Penn and later a senior writer
in Development Communications. This account is based primarily on contemporary
newspaper accounts of the epidemic's progress in the city and on the Penn
November/December Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 10/28/98