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1918 Influenza Epidemic Records


In the spring of 1918, the influenza virus hit Europe, the United States, and Asia. While unusually high rates of the virus were diagnosed, the number of deaths were typical of the disease. What made the 1918 Influenza Epidemic or Spanish Flu so unusual were the two subsequent waves of infection in the fall of 1918 and the winter of 1919. Such waves in one year were unprecedented. By the end of the epidemic, an estimated one third of the world's population was infected and total deaths were estimated to be at least 50 million, but could have been as high as 100 million.

In March 1918, the first details in the United States of an influenza outbreak came from a Haskill County, KS report to the Public Health Service, noting that "18 cases of influenza of a severe type" had occurred. This report was important because in 1918 the Public Health Service did not require cases of influenza to be reported. The virus seemed to retreat later in the spring of 1918, but in August it returned more virulently with an outbreak in Boston. Dock workers there who contracted the virus suffered from "fevers as high as 105 degrees...[and] severe muscle and joint pain." Five to ten percent of the affected patients developed pneumonia and died. The virus spread quickly from Boston to California, North Dakota, Florida, and Texas.

Shortly after the outbreak in Boston, a Navy ship from Boston docked in Philadelphia. The first case of influenza diagnosed in Philadelphia was reported on September 18, 1918 at the Navy base. By the next day, 600 sailors were diagnosed, and the first civilian patients were arriving at area hospitals. According to James F. Armstrong in the article "Philadelphia, Nurses, and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918," (< Navy Medicine 92, no. 2 {March-April 2001}: 16-20) "Philadelphia was about to become the American city with the highest, most rapidly accumulating death toll in the worst pandemic in recorded history." While Philadelphia dealt with the virus in September, it took an additional three weeks before Pittsburgh succumbed to the virus.

"Twenty-six percent of Philadelphia physicians and a much larger percentage of nurses were away serving with the military; 75 percent of Philadelphia's hospitals' medical and surgical staffs were overseas" (Armstrong, "Philadelphia, Nurses, and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918"). Nursing students and lay people tended to the ill. Nurses worked around the clock to combat the illness, but even they were not spared. Among the many of them who toiled, Marie Louis Hidell (at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital) and Edna Place (Philadelphia, PA) lost their lives and were awarded the Navy Cross posthumously for their work.

Then, as quickly as the influenza outbreak began, it began to subside. At the end of October the number of patients decreased, public places reopened, and quarantines were lifted. By the spring of 1919, it was estimated there were 12,191 deaths in Philadelphia alone (of a population of 1.7 million). By October 25th, the official estimates for the state were 350,000 reported cases, with 150,000 of them coming from Philadelphia. Estimates by the end of spring 1919 indicate 625,000 Americans were dead from influenza. No one at the time could determine what caused the virus to mutate so quickly and virulently; and researchers today are still trying to determine the exact cause of the virus.

Sources at the Pennsylvania State Archives

Considering the impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania State Archives holds relatively few sources pertaining to that episode of the state's history. Provided below is a descriptive list of all pertinent materials identified in our collections.

Record Group 10, Records of the Office of the Governor

Council of National Defense and Committee of Public Safety

The Council of National Defense and the Committee of Public Safety were created in 1917 through Act No.106 under the administration of Governor Martin Grove Brumbaugh in order to prepare for the defense of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania during World War I. The Governor served as the chairman of the Council, with the Lieutenant Governor and the members of the Military Board as other council members.

Series 10.30, General Correspondence, 1917-1919. (1 box)

The meeting minutes of the Executive Council of the Council of National Defense and the Committee for Public Safety contain three references to the influenza epidemic: Vice Director Yarnall's Influenza Epidemic Report, a request from Executive Secretary Dripps of the Philadelphia branch for $500 to purchase 100 medals for volunteer aides whose service during the influenza epidemic was "worthy of such special recognition," and an update on the amount of money sent to Philadelphia to assist with the influenza epidemic ($5,000 appropriated, $3,545 spent as of November 27, 1918).

Series 10.31, General File, 1917-1920. (4 boxes)

Letters discuss various aspects of the influenza epidemic. Topics include: members of the Council of National Defense and Committee of Public Safety not attending meetings due to local issues involving influenza, a questionnaire from Director of the Council and of the Field Division in Washington, D.C. asking what the councils have done to prevent a recurrence of the influenza epidemic, a letter detailing future work of the State Councils to organize community forces against influenza, information regarding Philadelphia's request for an increase in petty cash to help combat the epidemic, telegram from Bethlehem from an embalmer willing to assist if necessary, and telegram from Chambersburg requesting to know why the Chambersburg Hospital is refusing influenza patients.

Series 10.32, Minute Books of the Executive Committee, 1917-1919. (3 volumes)

Minutes from meetings of the Executive Committee of the Council of National Defense and Committee of Public Safety from April 25 through November 14, 1918. The chairman of the Executive Committee believes an epidemic in Philadelphia may happen and emergency work on a large scale may be necessary (meeting on Thursday, September 26, 1918). Advice on "What to do until the doctor comes, " "To householders," "To workers," and "To nurses" provided by the Council of National Defense and the Committee of Public Safety, modified from the State Department of Health of Massachusetts and Emergency Public Health Committee, sent to newspapers entitled "How to Avoid It - How to Care for Those Who Have It." Executive Chamber Proclamation on October 11, 1918 from Martin G. Brumbaugh, Governor, for all personal nurses to leave private care and come to the aid of the general public during this time. Numbers of those afflicted with influenza in Philadelphia discussed, that the virus spread to the anthracite and bituminous coal areas, and an "interesting and graphic recital of the appalling conditions in Philadelphia" presented by Executive Secretary Dripps (Thursday, October 24, 1918).

Minutes from meetings from November 27 through December 5, 1918. Information from Executive Committee regarding Vice Director Yarnall's influenza report, request for 100 silver medals for outstanding volunteers during the epidemic, and update on additional funding supplied to Philadelphia (Wednesday, November 27, 1918). A report of State Events for 1918 specifically mentions how the influenza outbreak affected Lancaster County and Pittsburgh.

Series 10.33, Minute Books of the Philadelphia Advisory Committee, 1918. (1 volume)

Minutes from meetings between July 1 and December 30, 1918. Requests for petty cash for Schuylkill County, which was approved and retracted, an increase in petty cash from $100 to $500 to meet influenza epidemic (Thursday, October 18, 1918). A partial manuscript of Vice Director Yarnall's report on the activities of council and branch during the influenza epidemic in Pennsylvania (Thursday, November 21, 1918). The Executive Manager confirmed the printing of approximately 10,000 copies of Vice Director Yarnall's report (Thursday, November 28, 1918). Bills from epidemic expenses presented by Mr. W. Grant Rauch to the secretary totaling $388.04 for payment (Thursday, December 5, 1918).

Charlton Yarnall's report was published as Emergency Service of the Pennsylvania Council of National Defense in the Influenza Crisis (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Council of Defense, 1918).

Series 10.36, Scrapbooks, 1917-1920. (7 volumes)

Articles pertaining to new farmers markets and their progress in attracting the community until the influenza epidemic outbreak disrupted operations (Bristol, Bucks County; Nanticoke, Luzerne County; and Plymouth, Luzerne County). Press release from the Council of National Defense and Committee of National Safety to newspapers requesting publication of an announcement by Dr. B. Franklin Royer for the need of cars to transport doctors and nurses around the city and of tents for emergency hospitals from the local community. Newspaper articles pertaining to the influenza epidemic from such newspapers as:

  • Chambersburg Valley Spirit
  • Evening League
  • Greenville Record
  • Harrisburg Telegraph
  • Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Philadelphia Ledger
  • Philadelphia North American
  • Philadelphia Press
  • Towanda Review

Within the Scrapbooks are additional newspaper articles from 1917 to 1921 covering the influenza epidemic (Box 1). Topics include discussion of local quarantines, updating the number of deaths due to influenza, a letter from a local soldier overseas sharing what he knows of the "Spanish Influenza," and updates on local towns either now under quarantine or with their quarantine lifted, among others. Newspapers available for research include:

  • Church of the Savior (Philadelphia) Parish Messenger
  • Greenville Progress
  • Harrisburg Evening News
  • Kittanning Daily Times
  • Mifflintown Tribune
  • Port Allegheny Reporter
  • Punxsutawney Spirit
  • Quarryville Sun
  • Ridgeway Record
  • Scranton Republic
  • Slatington News
  • West Schuylkill Press Tremont

Record Group 11, Records of the Department of Health

Series 11.45, Cadaver Receiving Books, 1901-1965. (7 volumes)

A register of human cadavers received by the Anatomical Board to be distributed to medical and dental facilities for research. Information provided for each cadaver includes name, gender, color, age, place of birth, marital status, and occupation; date received; date and cause of death; physician's name; where received from and delivered to; tag number; whether cut or uncut; condition; and the claimed, substitute, or buried tag number. Influenza epidemic victims are identified in entries for October 1918 (p. 94) through December 1918 (p. 100). The majority of the bodies were received from Philadelphia. [Digitial Images]

Record Group 19, Records of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs

War History Commission (World War I)

Series 19.188, General File, 1915-1920, 1928. (30 cartons)

A file composed of diverse types of documents assembled by the War History Commission between the end of World War I and 1928 providing information about the activities of American Expeditionary Forces in France during the conflict. Included are detailed narrative field reports made by company commanders to their superiors, daily reports of casualties and other changes presented to the Adjutant General, and narrative reports of the activities of each of the naval districts during the war.

A listing in the Daily Changes in Patients for hospitals located in Borncourt, Brizeaux, Brouxelles, Courmet, Croix de Pierre, Essey, Fontain-Tighe, Les Islettes, Loganville Farms, Minorville, Neuvilly, and Reddy-Farm from July 17, 1918 to October 31, 1918 notes influenza cases. Details include patient's name, serial number, and description of diagnosis. Patients' diagnoses include: Influenza; Influenza, L; Influenza, Acute; Influenza, O; Influenza, S; Influenza Gastro-enteritis; Influenza, O.L.; Influenza and Rheumatism; Influenza, Catarrahal; Influenza, acute, O; Influenza OL Colitis; Influenza S.L.; Influenza, Bronchitis acute, O.L.; Influenza, Neuralgia, O.L.; Influenza, ears affected by shellfire; Diarrhea, Influenza O.L.; Influenza and Scabies O.L.; Influenza and Bronchitis acute catarrhal; Influenza and Gastro-enteritis acute, catarrhal O.L.; Influenza and Bronchitis acute, catarrhal O; Influenza and Gas Inhalation, O.L.; Influenza and Tonsillitis, O.L.; Influenza and Exhaustion, O.L.; Influenza S suspected Pneumonia L; Influenza and Laryngitis, acute, catarrhal, O.L.; Influenza, dental treatment, O.L.; Influenza, Rheumatism, articular, L; Influenza and Tonsillitis, L; Tank burn, Influenza, and eyes; Fever and Influenza; Influenza, espagnol; GSW, influenza L; Influenza, ears affected by shell fire; Influenza, severe, scabies; and Influenza, pneumonia L.

Record Group 30, Records of the Pennsylvania State Police

Series 30.10, General Correspondence, 1905-1946. (13 boxes)

One telegram and two letters indicating the influenza epidemic made meetings and motion picture viewing impossible. A telegram dated October 11, 1918 from George F. Lumb, Acting Superintendent, Harrisburg, to William S. Ellis, Committee Police, Guards and Inspection, Philadelphia, stating it is impossible for Captain Price to attend a meeting that evening due to twelve men being down with influenza and that the troop is furnishing ambulance drivers to transport doctors in their community. A letter sent on November 1, 1918 from the Acting Deputy Superintendent to Mr. Isaac Silverman, in charge of motion pictures, War Department, Washington, D.C. stating they had been unable to show "Fit to Fight" as all public gatherings had been prohibited and moving picture houses closed due to the influenza epidemic. A letter from Wilson C. Price, Captain, State Police Troop C, Pottsville, PA on November 6, 1918 to the Superintendent, Department State Police, stating the meeting has been postponed due to the influenza epidemic.

Manuscript Group 348, Martin G. Brumbaugh Papers, 1879-1919

Martin Grove Brumbaugh served as Republican Governor of Pennsylvania from 1915 to 1919.

Series 348m.1, Executive Correspondence, 1915-1919 (2 boxes, 9 folders)

Five letters included in Box 1 mention action taken based on the influenza epidemic: a letter dated October 9, 1918 to William H. Ball, Secretary to the Governor, stating Adjutant General F.D. Beary had received Warrant No. 61 for the amount of $28,000.00 due to the influenza epidemic, this money designated to the General Emergency Fund; a second letter dated October 9, 1918 from the Private Secretary to Beary states that Warrant No. 61 for $28,000.00 was sent and Beary is to account in detail to the Governor for the check; the third letter, dated October 28, 1918, to Ball from Beary, directing him to appoint Ira B. Jones to Local Draft Board No. 7 in Schuylkill County temporarily due to the influenza epidemic, mentions that two Board members are sick and the doctor on the Board is too overwhelmed with the health crisis to attend to Board business; the fourth letter written on November 1, 1918 to Paul W. Houck, Secretary of Internal Affairs in Harrisburg, from the Private Secretary stating Ira B. Jones is temporarily appointed a member of Local Draft Board No. 7, Schuylkill County; the fifth letter, dated November 7, 1918 to Ball, asks that Ira B. Jones be appointed to the Local Draft Board No. 7 in Schuylkill County and that it be made permanent as Mr. Chris Stule, Chairman of Board No. 7 has died.

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