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Notes from the Archives: #onthisday in 1918, the Spanish Flu arrived in Boston

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On this day, in 1918, two sailors housed at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier reported to the sickbay with the flu. These two men signaled the beginning of the second deadly wave of the Spanish Flu.

By the end of the week, 100 new cases a day were being reported among the sailors at the pier. By the beginning of September, the flu had spread to Boston’s civilian population.

An image of a hospital during the Spanish flu in Boston

The below excerpt from Boston’s Health Department describes the beginning of the flu outbreak.

An excerpt about the Spanish flu in Boston
An excerpt about the Spanish flu in Boston

The disease spread throughout the United States rapidly. During the fall of 1918 and spring of 1919, more than 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish Influenza.  In Boston, officials closed schools and tried to limit crowded gatherings to combat the spread of the disease. Health officials also encouraged or mandated masking, banned the use of public drinking cups, and discouraged spitting in public. 

"Halt the Epidemic" poster, 1918, Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center
Halt the Epidemic! poster, 1918, George F. Tyler poster collection, Temple University Libraries

 Their efforts met with some success, but when World War I ended, crowds gathered to celebrate the armistice. Boston’s Health Department reported that cases of flu increased immediately after the celebration of the armistice. A similar increase in flu cases and deaths occurred after Bostonians gathered to celebrate Christmas. The Health Department documented this increase in their report below.

An excerpt about the Spanish flu in Boston

Many of Boston’s residents were treated for the flu at Boston City Hospital, pictured below.

Boston City Hospital

The hospital’s trustees documented in their annual report that they treated 2,300 patients afflicted with influenza. 675 of those patients died from the disease. You can read an excerpt from the report below.

An excerpt about the Spanish flu in Boston
An excerpt about the Spanish flu in Boston

The epidemic resulted in both an influx of patients and a shortage of staff at City Hospital. Prior to the flu epidemic, the hospital already faced a staff shortage because many of its doctors and nurses were serving in Europe.  Student nurses at the hospital’s Training School stepped in to fill the gap.

The below report from the hospital’s Training School for Nurses reported that “…the Training School went through the most difficult period in its history, practically swept clean of its supervisors and teachers. To the student body we owe much….”

An excerpt about the Spanish flu in Boston

Bostonians throughout the city followed suit. Boston’s School Superintendent wrote that when the city shut down its schools, many teachers voluntarily helped their ill neighbors, even though they were not medically trained.

A report about the Spanish flu in Boston

Petrina Maravigna of the North End recalls her family stepping in to help ill neighbors. When three of their neighbors contracted the flu, eventually dying, her family first took the neighboring family food and then took in their children. 

Petrina Maravigna

By the end of 1918, over 4,000 Bostonians died from the flu, compared to 51 deaths the year prior. The below report from Boston’s Health Department compares the 1918 deaths to influenza deaths from previous years.

A table with data about the Spanish flu

The 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic spurred research that helped the medical community understand how diseases spread and how to better prepare for and treat the influenza virus. You can read more about the 1918 Influenza Epidemic at the Center for Disease Controls website

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