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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. 1-5 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.]

During the years 1918-1919, The Spanish Influenza, one of the most devastating pandemics of modern times, ravaged much of the world. The pandemic received its name because of the severity of the outbreak on the Iberian Peninsula. The influenza pandemic would be responsible for more deaths in one year than the First World War had caused in four years. The pestilence killed approximately twenty million persons world-wide and at least five hundred thousand in the United States. The speed of the disease provided little or no escape: Influenza was able to circle the globe in less than five months without the benefit of the airplane. Today, scientists are still not quite sure how it spread so far so quickly. For example, inaccessible Eskimo villages were reported to have been wiped out to the last adult and child. In fact, the only spot in the world that escaped totally untouched was the tiny, isolated island of Tristan da Cunha located in the South Atlantic. (1)

Influenza has afflicted humanity since ancient times. The individual symptoms and epidemiological traits of the disease are sufficiently characteristic to enable one to identify a number of major epidemics in the distant past. Hippocrates recorded the first known influenza epidemic in 412 B.C., and numerous outbreaks were reported during the Middle Ages. (2) The term "influenza" was introduced in Italy in the 15th century when the disease was attributed to the influence (= "influenza") of the stars. Later Italian writers refer to "influenza di freddo," the influence of the cold, thinking that exposure to the cold caused influenza. The British adopted the name during the epidemic of 1742-43, and it was during this same time the French began calling the disease "la grippe." (3)

The first well-recorded episode of influenza was the pandemic of 1580, which started in Asia and spread to Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The pandemic swept through Europe in six weeks and "afflicted almost all of the nations of whom hardly the twentieth person was free of the disease, and anyone who was so became an object of wonder to others in the place." (4) In Britain there were two waves, one in the summer and one in autumn, with high mortality. Rome recorded 5000 dead, and "some Spanish cities were… nearly entirely depopulated by the disease." (5) Such a high mortality rate can be explained, in part, by the crowded, unsanitary conditions of the large cities of the time, and by the practice of treating a fever with bloodletting. (6)

As shown by the following table, there were eight major outbreaks of influenza in the nineteenth century.

Table 1 — Major Outbreaks of Influenza in the Nineteenth Century (7)

Parts of World Affected
China? Russia?
All of Europe, Russia, China, Brazil
Generally mild, little mortality
Whole World over a three year period
Britain hard, especially hard in 1833.
Europe, Africa, Australia
Again, Britain reports higher mortality than other parts of Europe. This is probably a recurrence of the strain from 1830-33.
Europe, North America, the West Indies, Brazil
Paris claimed a 25% infection rate, and there were approximately 250,000 cases in London.
North and South America, the West Indies, Australia, Germany
Again, England was not affected
North and South America, Continental Europe
Although Influenza was wide-spread in the Americas and Europe, Britain was not significantly affected.
North America, Continental Europe
Again, England was not affected
Bukhara, Russia
Whole World: Russia (May), Western Europe (November), N. America (December), S. America (February), Eastern Mediterranean (January), India (February), Australia (March)
Called the "Asiatic Influenza." There was a high attack rate and considerable mortality. This was the worst of the pandemics of the 19th century. There were several epidemics in subsequent years, presumably from the same strain.

The pandemic of 1918-1919 was composed of three waves. The first probably began in the United States in March, 1918, and spread to Europe. By July, the disease had reached New Zealand, India and South Africa. The second wave affected nearly every nation on all five continents. The third swept Europe and the United States in the spring of 1919. Of the three waves, the second was the most lethal. (8) The pandemic caused wipespread disruption throughout the world, and at its height, the community life of many cities was essentially non-existent. In the United States, there were twenty-five million clinical cases of influenza during the Fall and Winter of 1918-19 — nearly one quarter of the entire population. In most major cities, theaters were closed and public gatherings prohibited. Hospitals and morgues were overcrowded and understaffed. Some healthy adults died within 24 hours of the first signs of illness. Despite an outpouring of volunteers entire families became sick without anyone to care for them. There were countless remedies, but before long it became apparent that the only effective treatment was bedrest and good nursing care. (9)

The pandemic seriously hindered the United States' war effort. By the fall of 1918, the delivery of new troops to the western front had all but stopped. The Armed Forces suffered approximately 43,000 deaths from influenza, only twenty percent less than the number of troops killed in action. (10)

Like all major cities of the United States, Schenectady was affected by the Pandemic, with 404 recorded deaths and approximately 15,000 cases. The first reported cases of Influenza were recorded at the construction site of the South Schenectady (now Rotterdam) Military warehouses among the black troops stationed there at the end of September. By mid October, influenza had a firm grip on the entire city. Schools were closed and public gatherings were probited. At one point, General Electric reported that thirty percent of its work force was out with the disease. The beginning of November saw the end to both World War I and the Pandemic. (11)

This paper will trace the course of the Influenza Pandemic from its beginnings in March of 1918 to its eventual disappearance from the human population. The Pandemic will be discussed in general terms on the world and country level, and quite specifically in reference to its effects on the City of Schenectady.

Introduction Footnotes

  1. Robert Katz, "Influenza 1918-1919: A Study in Mortality," Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Fall 1974, p. 416; Stuart Galisoff, "Newark and the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918", Bulletin of the History of Medicine, May/June 1964, p. 246; June Osborn, History, Science and Politics: Influenza in America 1918-1976, 1977, p. 7; A. A. Hoeling, The Great Epidemic, 1961, pp. 8-9.
  2. Martin Kaplan and Robert Webster, "The Epidemiology of Influenza," Scientific American, December, 1977, p. 88.
  3. William Beveridge, Influenza, The Last Great Plague, 1977, p. 24.
  4. Ibid, p. 26.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Kaplan and Webster, p. 88.
  7. Beveridge, pp. 27-30.
  8. Walter Dowling, et al., Informed Consent: Influenza Facts and Myths, 1983, p. 10.
  9. Kaplan and Webster, p. 88.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Larry Hart, The Hospital on the Hill, 1985, pp. 80-89.

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