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The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and How It Affected the City of Schenectady, New York

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[This information is from pp. 58-61 of The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and How It Affected the City of Schenectady, New York by Alan Morris (Schenectady: Union College, 1986) and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 974.744 Mor. Title inside cover is America and Influenza: The Pandemic of 1918-19 and How It Affected the City of Schenectady, New York.]

In every sense, Schenectady's experience with the influenza pandemic of 1918 was not very different from most other cities' across the country. The local epidemic lasted approximately three months, and the city recorded a death rate of 4.5 deaths per thousand. This death rate is in line with the death rates recorded in other cities, such as New York (4.1), San Francisco (4.7) and Chicago (3.5), that were struck at about the same time in the epidemic as Schenectady. (see p. 19 [in Chapter II].)

Not suprisingly, the majority of Schenectady's influenza victims were between the ages of twenty and forty. Although the number of deaths due to influenza in each age group is not recorded, the overall death rates for the twenty to forty group showed a tremendous increase during the epidemic. In September 1918, the last "pre-influenza" month, there were 22 deaths in the twenty to forty age group. During October 1918, 364 people in this group died. Overall, the epidemic caused Schenectady's death rate to rise from 12.90 per thousand in 1917 to 18.00 per thousand in 1918. If the influenza-caused deaths were taken out of the calculation, the city's death rate would have been practically the same as that of 1917. In 1919, the death rate dropped down to 12.28 per thousand, which was quite close to the five year average for 1913-1917 of 12.17 per thousand. (1)

Schenectady's response to the epidemic was typical of many cities. Across the country, schools closed, public gatherings were banned and special restrictions were placed on resturants and saloons. In addition, many cities reported shortages of nurses, doctors, caskets, bedding and food for victims. (See Chapter IV). Vaccines were tried in other cities, as well as many new and unproven methods of treatment. One suprising aspect of Schenectady's experience was that no one in the city advocated the wearing of gauze masks to help stop the spread of the disease.

The epidemic caused Schenectady to take a hard look at its health care capabilities. Dr. Walter Clark, the City Health Officer, opened his report for the year ending October 31, 1918, by saying that Schenectady's Health care system needed many of improvements:

The Health Department started with a Health Officer and one clerk, the city's population at the time being 18,000, and the same system exists today as was used then. (2)

Clark recommended that two deputy Health Officers be appointed to handle of the financial and adminstrative work so the Chief Health Officer could concentrate on medical matters. He also asked that supervising nurses be appointed for the communicable disease, child welfare, tuberculosis, and venereal disease divisions, and that the three temporary communicable disease nursing positions be made permanent. (3)

Mayor Simon also realized that the city's Health Department needed to be brought up to date:

Nothing is of more importance to a community than the health of its people, and the past year has brought our municipal Health Department very much before the public eye… An epidemic of such serious proportion, and the urgent and oft-repeated requests of the Federal Government that every community throughout the land further extend its health work as a measure of protection… has brought to the front the necessity of some further expansion of the Health Department. In recognition of the urgent necessity of such a step and as a measure of further safeguarding the health of the community, a City Health Center is being established… The city is thus furnished with a central station for all its nurses and clinics. (4)

The impact of the 1918 pandemic is almost impossible to conceive. Financially, millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars were lost across the country as a result of store closings, factory shutdowns, and temporary layoffs. The health care bills of both private parties and government agencies were enormous. Life insurance claims numbering in the tens of thousands overwhelmed many insurance companies.

Can a pandemic the magnitude of 1918 strike again? One only has to look at the panic that took place amongst government agencies in 1976, when the country was threatened by the possibility of a Swine Flu epidemic to answer that question. People are frightened by influenza, partially because of our inability to control it. Doctor Charles Cockburn, the head of the World Health Organization's section on viruses perhaps summed it up best:

The influenza virus behaves just as it seemed to have done five hundred or one thousand years ago, and we are no more capable of stopping epidemics or pandemics than our ancestors were. (5)

During its ten month pandemic, Spanish influenza, by a conservative estimate, affected one-fifth of the total population of the world. Millions watched their loved ones suffer and die while medical science could do nothing. Two World Wars aside, the Spanish influenza pandemic was perhaps the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.

The influenza epidemic of [1918], through it had an enormous mortality in the United States and was, in fact, the worst epidemic since the Middle Ages, is seldom mentioned and most Americans have apparently forgotten it. This is not surprising. The human mind always tries to expunge the intolerable from memory, just as it tries to conceal it while current. (6)

Conclusion Footnotes

  1. "Report of the Bureau of Health," Proceedings of the Common Council of the City of Schenectady, Volume Two — Reports, 1918, pp. 274-81; 1919, pp. 336-41.
  2. "Report of the Bureau of Health," Proceedings of the Common Council of the City of Schenectady, Volume Two — Reports, 1918, p. 270.
  3. Ibid.
  4. "Mayor's Message," Proceedings of the Common Council of the City of Schenectady for the Year 1918, Volume 2, Reports, 1918, p. 11.
  5. Dowdle, et al., p. 22.
  6. Fred Rodgers, Epidemiology and Communicable Disease Control, 1963, p. 32.

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