During the fall of 1918 the United States was busy concentrating on the demands of World War I.

During the fall of 1918 the United States was busy concentrating on the demands of World War I.

(student#1 Shelly)

During the fall of 1918 the United States was busy concentrating on the demands of World War I. The last thing states needed to deal with was a global flu pandemic. Unfortunately, a flu pandemic in the form of Spanish Influenza, is exactly what they got. Interestingly enough a flu pandemic during wartime seemed to be both bad and good, at least in the Pacific Northwest.

On one hand, war activities seemed to be one of the many causes of the spread of the disease. Ivan Wooley states in his article “The 1918 ‘Spanish Influenza’ Pandemic in Oregon”, “The rapid spread of the virus was made possible by great congregations of people, resulting from the war effort, troop concentration and movements, parades, rallies and other mass gatherings for bond drives and patriotic purposes” (Woolley, p. 247). Nancy Rockafellar notes in her article, “In Gauze We Trust’ that “troop movements and crowding actually helped to spread the disease” (Rockafellar, p. 105). There was also a shortage of doctors on hand to treat the flu because they had entered the armed services during the war. On the other hand, however, wartime patriotic attitudes seemed to carry through to responses to the pandemic. Rockefeller writes, “Although conditions of war tended to spread the epidemic, a mobilized, patriotic public was primed to deal with the calamity” and “Seattle fought the disease with the same spirit that characterized its war effort” (Rockafellar, p. 105 & 104).

Reading about how westerners responded to the pandemic in 1918 gave me a little bit of a deja vu vibe when comparing it to the responses of the current pandemic. Not only were many of the restrictions and preventative measures the same in 1918 as today, but also the responses to some of those restrictions were eerily identical. The responses of westerners in 1918 and the similarity to responses today brings to light how modernized and forward thinking the West was becoming in the early decades of the 20th Century. It was shocking to me to learn that the Seattle Health Department even developed their own “heat-killed bacterial vaccine” (Rockafellar, p. 108).

Just as today, in 1918 “the most controversial weapon in Seattle’s anti-influenza arsenal was the wearing of a six-ply gauze mask in public” (Rockafellar, p. 109). However, whereas today mask wearing (or lack thereof) seems to have become somewhat of a political statement, in 1918 most people believed in compliance even if they were not completely convinced of the efficacy of doing so. Other similar responses between the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and today’s COVID-19 pandemic include closing schools, prohibiting large gatherings, and quarantining when infected. A letter from the Wyoming Secretary State Board of Health posted in the the Northern Wyoming Herald stated, “Discontinue all public meetings, close public schools and all places of public amusement…Cases to be as nearly isolated as possible” (Northern Wyoming Herald, October 9, 1918). Court cases were postponed, spectators were not allowed at sporting events, public areas were cleaned daily with a “strong germicide”, spacing regulations were enforced, and churches were closed (Woolley, pp.249, 253, 254, 256). All of these responses apply to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 as well as to the pandemic we are experiencing today. One thing I found very interesting was that even before the age of computers, consumers were urged to “order necessary goods by telephone” and to only go to the store when absolutely necessary (Woolley, p. 253).

One of the main motivations for stopping the spread of the disease during the Spanish Flu pandemic was so wartime activities would not be affected. Public health officials used the patriotic momentum to motivate people to comply with efforts to prevent the spread of the flu, and for the most part, westerners had the attitude that it was their patriotic duty to do everything they could to fight the war on the flu. However, when the war ended with an announcement made on November 11, 1918, “the cooperative mood faded” (Rockafellar, p. 104). People were “determined to celebrate the end of the flu along with the end of the Great War” (Rockafellar, p. 109). Even though influenza peaked again in December and was just as sudden and deadly as the October peak, “the public virtually ignored it” (Rocafellar, P. 110).

It seems that people throughout history react to emergencies such as the Spanish Flu pandemic in ways that reflect what is happening in the world around them. Whether there is a World War, the ending of a World War, or a volatile political climate, people tend to respond to emergencies according to the attitudes and emotional environments of the time.

Nancy Rockafeller, “‘In Gauze We Trust’: Public Health and Spanish Influenza on the Home Front, Seattle, 1918-1919,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 77, no. 3 (July 1986): 104-113.

Ivan M. Wooley, “The 1918 ‘Spanish Influenza’ Pandemic in Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 64, no. 3 (September 1963): 246-258.

Northern Wyoming Herald, October 9, 1918. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92066926/1918-10-09.

a student named samuel responded to shelly by saying this:


Great post. You raise salient points. Having the Spanish Flu outbreak right as America is mobilizing and going to world war….is kind of the worst time for a plague to hit. There is no option of stopping the soldiers going to fight, and they have to do so in groups. I particular enjoyed how you framed the response of Americans to the plague as having been impacted by the patriotic war fever that was prevalent during the time. This is a good analysis and lends itself well to understanding why it seems like they did a better job than our current plague. Helping to stop the pandemic was showing your patriotic flag and signalling to others that you were doing your duty to help the war effort in anyway possible. In my post I mention that people were taking their personal cars to give soldiers rides after duty, as it was thought that the fresh air would help them not get infected. So much of this reaction can be billed in terms of patriotism.

It is a marker of just how modern this time period is and how modern the west has been for quite some time. From Prof. Marsh’s lecture, that picture he had of Denver from the late 1800s looked thoroughly modern, and these stories indicate that it really is. Sadly, just like now they had their share of poor information and poor reactions to dealing with a pandemic. Over a hundred years and the reactions are so similar as to be identical. I wonder if 100 years from now there is a pandemic, if they will burn masks like they did today?

Student#2 James

In many ways, the actions and response to the Spanish Flu outbreak parallels the experiences we have in currently dealing with Covid-19. Wooley (1963) points out that numbers rapidly increased in areas where large gatherings and congregations of people were present. This seems eerily similar to our own current circumstance as Covid-19 was quick to expand through city centers and places where large people would be in mass gathering. With the 1918 flu, we see an increase in public health response and the emphasis on reporting numbers of infected. With Covid-19, we’re in a place where we’re receiving at least daily updated numbers, while other states and cities’ reporting has come under scrutiny. Additionally, much of the public health measures that were put in place once the situation became dire created a great deal of public outcry (Influenza in Idaho). With Covid-19, Bannock County has had difficulty with how best to balance the need for restrictions with the effects of restrictions on local business. As such, there has been a great deal of resistance to public health restrictions. With the 1918 Flu, some (such as seen in Wallace, Idaho) saw avoiding the flu as their “patriotic duty,” while others were resistant to shut down measures.

Another interesting parallel has to do with premature reopenings and scaled back restrictions resulting in a rise in numbers of infected. At first, people seems willing to deal with restrictions and self quarantining due to Covid-19, but I think that as the situation has been prolonged, many have pushed reopening. Regarding Public health response, there seemed to be a much larger and expansive plan of action for dealing with the 1918 Flu in that whole gymnasiums and other non health facilities were being converted into temporary treatment and triage centers. I’m not sure if this is due to an expanse and advancement of modern medical capabilities, but we haven’t had this occurring at such a scale with Covid-19.

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