Syracuse University PressContact UsOrder The Encyclopedia of New York State home page
Encyclopedia of New York State
Cover of the Encyclopedia of New York State bookAbout ENYSSelected entriesReviewsOrderAdvisory boardEditorial boardDonorsContact Us

Influenza Pandemic, 1918-19.                 more selected entries

Influenza epidemics were common during fall and winter months, but the strain that caused the 1918-19 epidemic was remarkable in its virulence. Although the flu is usually deadly in the very young and the elderly, this strain, erroneously named "Spanish Influenza," was fatal more often in persons aged 15-45. The rapid spread of disease was linked to army and navy personnel crowded into training camps during the final months of World War I. Soldiers taking leave in nearby cities and traveling in public conveyances increased civilian exposure. Being near a military installation or acting as a transportation hub predisposed a community to greater danger, but cooperation among public and private authorities resulted in more effective control even in densely populated communities. New York City, for example, had a lower fatality rate than many other cities and towns in the state.

The New York Times reported that the first cases in the state were merchant mariners who shipped into New York Harbor on 13 Sept 1918. They were promptly quarantined. When civilian cases appeared in Manhattan, Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland declared influenza a reportable disease; all physicians were required to inform the Board of Health of new cases. By late September incoming travelers who appeared to have the "grippe" were detained and examined at railroad stations. They were not allowed to ride public transit to their destinations in the city. Shortly afterward the Board of Health ordered the opening and closing times of businesses, factories, and theaters to be staggered, thereby thinning crowds during rush hours. Copeland ordered tight monitoring of the availability of hospital beds and divided the city into districts for more efficient medical and nursing care. Despite opposition, he refused to close schools, declaring them more healthful places for students than their own homes.

Other communities came under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Health, which quickly declared influenza a reportable disease, made "unguarded" coughing and sneezing in public a misdemeanor, and flooded localities with literature about avoiding contagion and caring for victims. Less than two weeks after it appeared in New York City, the epidemic skipped northward to Victory Mills and Schuylerville (Saratoga Co) and then westward to Oswego. As a Great Lakes port and with the Fort Ontario Army Hospital on the city's outskirts, Oswego was more vulnerable than other municipalities of comparable size. The disease struck approximately 3,500 of Oswego's 23,000 inhabitants by the first week of October. With half its normal complement of physicians and nurses in military service, the community faced a crisis it could not handle. The Health Department quickly sent aid: physicians in the Communicable Diseases Division and supervising nurses of the Public Health Nursing Division. They established central information bureaus, organized nurses, and created temporary hospitals. When the situation came under control, the state medical personnel were reassigned to Dunkirk (Chautauqua Co), Binghamton, Syracuse, Schenectady, and other communities paralyzed by the epidemic. Meanwhile, scientists in the State Division of Laboratories and Research worked to develop an effective vaccine, volunteering themselves for inoculation. A $50,000 federal grant to the state funded additional help from US Health Service physicians and nurses.

Most major communities in the state adopted measures similar to New York City's. Indiscriminate spitters, coughers, and sneezers were arrested and fined. Public conveyances were fumigated, and their windows were kept open despite cold weather. At the epidemic's height theaters, taverns, and schools were closed by municipal ordinances. Churches voluntarily suspended services. Although the occurrence of disease waned in November, new cases of influenza and its attendant complication, pneumonia, continued into the new year. More than a half million New Yorkers were afflicted, and the death toll reached into the tens of thousands.

Crosby, Alfred W. America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (1976; repr New York: Cambridge Univ Press, 1989)

Teresa K. Lehr


Syracuse University Press
621 Skytop Road, Suite 110
Syracuse, New York 13244-5290
Phone: 315.443.5534
Fax: 315.443.5545


Home  About ENYS  Selected Entries  Order  Editorial Board  Advisory Board  Donors  Reviews  Contact Us  Syracuse University Press 


© 2000-2015 Syracuse University Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

web design syracuse: CustomWebHelp