Central Ohio And The 1918 Flu Pandemic

Apr 1, 2020

As the coronavirus spreads across the country, many are looking back on the influenza pandemic of 1918 –inaccurately named the "Spanish Flu"– for lessons and some perspective on this global health crisis.

WOSU asked local historian Ed Lentz to discuss some of that history and the impact of the disease in Central Ohio.

WOSU: What was the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and how long did it last?

Ed Lentz: The influenza pandemic of 1918 was one of the deadliest pandemics in history, killing between 50 million to 100 million people around the world. The epidemic affected about 25% of America's population.

By the end of October 1918, the influenza claimed 200,000 American lives and by the time the pandemic totally passed, more than half a million Americans died. The impact on the population was so severe that in 1918, American life expectancy was reduced by 12 years.

The outbreak of the flu began in 1918 during the final months of World War I and was probably the result of weakened immune systems among soldiers on both sides from malnourishment. Their illness, which was known as "Le Grippe" in those days, was infectious and spread among the ranks of soldiers very quickly.

During the summer of 1918, as troops began to return home on leave, and they brought the virus with them as well. The virus spread across cities, towns and villages, and proved particularly hard on young adults between the ages of 20 and 30. 

WOSU: Why was it called the Spanish Flu?

EL: This came to be called the Spanish Flu because of press censorship through much of Europe during this period. Spain was one of the few countries that did not have that censorship, so when it became known to the press and to the world generally, the news about the flu came out of Spain first. Hence, the “Spanish Flu.”

The initial symptoms of the flu included a sore head and tiredness, followed by a dry hacking cough, loss of appetite, stomach problems, and then on the second day, excessive sweating. Next, the illness could affect the respiratory organs and pneumonia could develop.

Nurse and patients in hospital ward at Camp Sherman.
Credit Ross County Historical Society

WOSU: In Central Ohio, Camp Sherman near Chillicothe, Ohio was hit hardest. Why?

EL: By June of 1918, the flu had reached to Great Britain and by September, it reached the United States. Influenza spread rapidly across the country and hit Camp Sherman, a training camp for World War I, in the latter half of September.

It raged for more than a month, causing more than 1,000 people to die.

The rate of visitors to the camp increased, as family members rushed to see their ailing relatives. At the camp and nearby Chillicothe, accommodations were already inadequate. For the better lodging of visitors, Columbus Club women made an appeal for gifts of mattresses, bedding, towels and other supplies for Camp Sherman.

By the end of September of 1918, the flu had pretty well passed through that part of the country and people in Columbus were hopeful that it wouldn't reach them.

WOSU: What was the initial response to this flu in Columbus?

EL: Shortly after Camp Sherman was infected, the flu stole into Columbus, putting everyone on the defensive.

Following the lead of the State Department of Health, the Columbus authorities ordered the closing of schools, colleges, Sunday schools, theaters and motion picture houses on October 13. By that date, 516 cases and a score of deaths had been reported.

They prohibited public and private dances at halls and hotels, and banned all loitering around pool rooms. The Ohio State University, in compliance with state orders, closed around the same time.

Observance of the municipal orders proved effective, but it was not till October that signs of any kind of an early mastery of the disease appeared. By then, the number of recorded cases had reached 3,000 or more. The deaths had totaled 265, with 49 at the Columbus barracks, now Fort Hayes.

The influenza epidemic of 1918 peaked in December, but continued through the winter and into the spring of 1919. In the nine months that the flu ravaged through the city of Columbus, 1,236 people died.

The ban on public gatherings was removed following the peak in December, but there was a flare up again in March of 1919, which rather quickly subsided.

Headlines from The Columbus Dispatch in 1918 ranging from October 11 on the left to November 8 on the right.
Credit The Columbus Dispatch / Columbus Metropolitan Library

WOSU: What was treatment like during that time?

EL: During the 1918-1919 pandemic, it was common practice to put the sick outside in tents or in specially designed open wards. The combination of fresh air, sunlight, scrupulous standards of hygiene, and reusable facemasks appears to have substantially reduced deaths among some patients and infections among the medical staff.

Additionally, saloons were allowed to remain in business as long as all doors and windows remained wide open while customers were inside.

WOSU: How long did the economy take to recoup after the epidemic?

EL: Columbus, Ohio, came through the influenza pandemic reasonably well. The city, as well as the country, had been mobilized to fight World War I since April of 1917, so wartime restrictions were still in place.

It was a little easier to instill some disciplinary actions like the closing of theaters, restaurants and so on than might have been the case otherwise.

Once the influenza epidemic passed, the city recovered reasonably well economically because World War I was still progressing. With the end of World War I, the United States and Ohio entered into a relatively brief recession, but the economy bounced back fairly quickly by the end of 1919.

View of the Armistice Day celebration in downtown Columbus on November 11, 1918 at the intersection of North High and Gay Streets.
Credit Myron Seifert Collection / Columbus Metropolitan Library

WOSU: How did the 1918 flu change Columbus?

EL: The city emerged from the influenza pandemic of 1918 with a stronger record of public health commitment than before.

The earliest record of public health in Columbus dated back to 1833, when a committee of five citizens was appointed to deal with the Asiatic cholera epidemic. That committee waged a difficult but successful battle against the outbreak.

Later, diphtheria, pneumonia and diarrhea were among the threats faced by the residents and by a Columbus Board of Health that came into being by 1903. Generally speaking, that Board of Health was what presided over the pandemic of 1918.

Since that time, public health has played a key role with the increase of life expectancy, which is now 30 years longer than it was at the beginning of the 20th century.

Today, Columbus Public Health has six primary functions: preventing epidemics and the spread of disease, protecting against environmental hazards, preventing injuries, promoting and encouraging healthy behavior, responding to disasters, and ensuring the quality and accessibility of health services.

In all, there has been drastic improvement in public health over the course of the 20th and into the 21st century.  

Diana Bergemann, Mary Rathke, and Leticia Wiggins contributed to this story.