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

August 27, 2019

On this day, in 1918, two sailors housed at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier reported to the sickbay with the flu. These two men were the  first Americans stricken with the Spanish Influenza

Peabody Ward at Boston City Hospital, circa 1910-1920, Boston City Hospital collection (7020.001), Boston City Archives

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

Excerpt from Health Department Annual Report, 1919, City Documents (0100.003)

Excerpt from Health Department Annual Report, 1919, City Documents (0100.003)
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. 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.

Excerpt from Health Department Annual Report, 1919, City Documents (0100.003)
Many of Boston’s residents were treated for the flu at Boston City Hospital, pictured below.

Boston City Hospital exterior, circa 1910-1920, Boston City Hospital collection (7020.001)
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.

Excerpt from Boston City Hospital annual report, 1919, Boston City Hospital collection (7020.001)

Excerpt from Boston City Hospital annual report, 1919, Boston City Hospital collection (7020.001)

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….”

Excerpt from Boston City Hospital annual report, 1919, Boston City Hospital collection (7020.001)
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.

Annual Report of the Superintendent of Schools, 1919, School Committee Annual reports and documents ( 0405.001 )

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.

Excerpt from Health Department Annual Report, 1919, City Documents (0100.003)

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