Historian Draws Parallels Between The 1918 Spanish Flu And Today's Coronavirus Pandemic

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The second wave of the Spanish flu hit Boston particularly hard as America prepared for World War I. Here is a photo of the 1918 Flu Pandemic Memorial, located in nearby Rogers Field in Devens. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The second wave of the Spanish flu hit Boston particularly hard as America prepared for World War I. Here is a photo of the 1918 Flu Pandemic Memorial, located in nearby Rogers Field in Devens. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In late August 1918, thousands of American sailors housed at the Commonwealth Pier in Boston's Seaport District were waiting to be shipped out to fight in Europe in World War I.

Then, a couple of sailors showed up at the sickbay with fevers and other symptoms. By the end of that week, about 100 more were falling ill, every day.

This was the second wave of the so-called Spanish flu that hit America in 1918, and it hit Boston first.

Author and historian Kenneth C. Davis spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered about his book on the 1918 outbreak, "More Deadly than War," and the coronavirus pandemic hitting the nation today.

Here are some highlights from the interview, lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On how Boston become "ground zero" for flu's second wave

Well, first of all, we have to set the scene by saying the emphasis on the war in September 1918. America was at war. It took nearly a year for the United States to get ready to send troops. And they had gone off in the spring of 1918, at the very time that what became known as the Spanish flu started take off. It had slacked off — flu season was over — but then started to make a comeback. In late August and early September and hit Boston with a vengeance. And Boston was a major military port and a nearby military encampment.

On the U.S. Surgeon General sending physicians to Boston

These were four of the most experienced doctors in epidemics in the world at the time. What they saw there frightened them. They saw bodies being stacked like cordwood as one of them reported. So many young, healthy young men were dying so quickly, they couldn't believe their eyes.

And their death was gruesome. They were coughing, racked by pain, high fevers. Some of them were bleeding from their eyes, nose, mouth and ears. And some of them were turning blue because they weren't getting enough oxygen. In fact, before this was called Spanish flu, it was called the Purple Death. That's a term for what we now would call cyanosis: you turn blue because you're not getting enough oxygen in your lungs. And that's what's killing these otherwise healthy young men.

On the flu's spread through the country 

The sailors who brought it into Boston not only spread it throughout Boston and then to the rest of New England, they also got on ships and spread it to the rest of America in many ways...

They spread it through Philadelphia, which became probably the worst-hit city in America. Boston was not far behind. They went to New Orleans. So it hit Louisiana. They sailed to San Francisco. So it hit there. They went to the Great Lakes Naval Station outside of Chicago, the largest naval base in the world at the time. Then people got onto trains and took it around the rest of the country...

You cannot understand the history of the Spanish flu without understanding World War I. And you can't really understand what went on in the last year of World War I without understanding the flu.

On early experiments with military prisoners to cure the flu

They had six deaths. I think around 60 men agreed to do this. They were going to be set free for a variety of offenses. And what was curious is that none of them — although they were swabbed, then injected with live virus and goo and phlegm from sufferers, any way that you think of to get these guys to contract the virus — none of them did. And it's one of several mysteries about the Spanish flu, why those men in the brig in Boston didn't get sick.

I should say also, at the time, they didn't know what a virus was. It would be another nearly 20 years before viruses would actually be seen and understood. So these doctors were fighting in the dark.

On lessons we can take from the Spanish flu

I think there are three central lessons.

One of the real important points of this is that lies and censorship and propaganda, even, were very critical in the spread of the disease. It was believed, for instance, that the Germans might have started this, that they had given us poison water or that Bayer, a German company, had tainted aspirin, its wonder drug.

The next point is very important: ignoring science. There were clearly scientists, doctors, medical people who were advocating a much more aggressive response to this and certainly avoiding large crowds. Those were ignored partly because of the war again.

People wanted to have big liberty loan marches. The Liberty loans were war bonds. The fourth Liberty Loan Drive began in September of 1918, right in the middle of the outburst. Boston had a parade. Philadelphia had an infamous parade where two hundred thousand people were in the street. And two days later, every hospital bed was filled. So, ignoring science is really lethal.

And finally, misplaced priorities. In 1918, the priority was winning the war, so troops kept being shipped off even though doctors said don't pack these soldiers onto troopships.

So, we take those lessons and we look at it today. What did we learn? Boston tried to shut down. It was too late. Other cities were much more careful about social distancing, and they did flatten the curve, a modern term. But it's a very important lesson to learn that if we go too soon towards relaxing those measures, it can be very, very costly. It certainly was in 1918.

This article was originally published on May 11, 2020.

This segment aired on May 11, 2020.


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Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



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