I believe the last estimate of deaths in Illinois from influenza this season is at 27 which is nothing to sneeze at (sorry) but it is nothing compared to what Chicago and the rest of the world went through in 1918.
My first introduction to the Flu Pandemic of 1918 was about twenty years ago when I was very seriously researching my Chicago family genealogy. I noticed when I was looking up a cousin, Nora Maloney McDonald, she died only two days away from her daughter, Nellie McDonald. Nora was 38 when she died on October 12, 1918 and Nellie was 23 when she died on October 14, 1918. At first I thought they could have died in a vehicle crash or some other accident but when I was walking the grounds of Mt. Olivet Cemetery where they are buried I noticed a large number of people who died between October and December 1918. When I received their death certificates, it simply stated broncho-pneumonia as their cause of death. When I looked a little further (this was pre-World Wide Web) I received a lesson on the “Spanish Influenza” worldwide pandemic of 1918.
After years of genealogical research for myself and others, it became obvious that if you had family living in Chicago in 1918, somebody in your family most likely died from the virus. There was actually a mini-version of the deadly late year version of the Influenza in the spring of 1918 which was merely a warning sign of things to come.
By some estimates, this world-wide pandemic killed over 100 million people. Estimates of Chicago’s losses between October and December of 1918 numbered roughly 8,500. At the height of the infection Chicago was losing roughly 350 people per day (kinda makes 27 in the State of Illinois look like a drop in the bucket)
This flu was definitely something different. Of course, the conspiracy theories started because after all we were involved in a World War at the time and the actual “ground zero” of the flu is still a subject of debate. One theory suggested that it started in France when a group of soldiers had been camped next to where pigs had contracted a mutated version of an avian flu and it in turn jumped species from swine to human.
This flu was different in who it chose as its victims. In most influenza outbreaks the most vulnerable sectors of the population are infants, the elderly and those with other immune deficiencies. Not so with this flu. Those most likely to die from the 1918 influenza were the most healthy, those between the ages of 20-40. In some cases it appeared that infants, school age children and people over 60 were virtually immune although there were deaths in these age groups but relatively few.
This flu was different in its severity, symptoms and mortality rate. The normal death rate from an influenza outbreak is about 0.1 percent. This flu killed roughly 10 to 20 percent of those infected and the infection rate was about 50 percent of the world population which would have translated to roughly a death rate of 3-6 percent of the world population! Normally people die from a pneumonia that is secondary to the initial flu infection and pneumonia has been called “The old Man’s Friend” because of the peaceful and painless way it generally takes its victims and often gives people time to say goodbye. Not so with this flu. While most people died within 3 – 5 days of contracting the flu it was not unusual for someone to feel perfectly fine one minute and be dead within 12 hours! The flu came on with a vengeance and caused massive damage to the lungs. The lungs and mucous membranes would literally hemorrhage and the lungs would fill with a blood stained fluid that appeared pink and foamy. Many doctors who performed the autopsies related to this flu stated that the massive damage to the lungs was very similar to someone who had died from poison gas. Not only did it affect the lungs but caused major damage to the heart, kidneys and liver.
The city of Chicago responded the best way it could and passed laws prohibiting public meetings and closing public meeting places. Theaters were eventually closed as well as Cabarets or any establishment that had public musical events. Courtrooms were closed to the public, sporting events were cancelled. I thought it was funny that saloons were allowed to be open but only if there was no crowding and police raids were held arresting all who were considered “crowding”. Smoking was prohibited on trains and coughing as well as sneezing was against the law unless wearing a mask and spitting was a crime regardless. Funerals were limited to no more than 10 participants and many churches voluntarily closed.
I also thought it was very funny that schools were NOT closed and that may have been due to the fact that school age children were not that vulnerable to the disease or maybe people thought it was better to keep their kids away from a sick house where the parents were more likely to be sick than the children.
As I was researching the advice of the medical community at the time regarding proper precautions, I noticed that many of them suggested to avoid large crowds and places with a lack of adequate ventilation but I could find no mention of the now generally accepted first line of defense known as “hand washing”
So while we mourn the unfortunate deaths of 27 people in the State of Illinois from influenza let’s keeps our wits about us, not panic, wash our hands, and remember it could always be worse.
For futher reading I highly recommend John M. Barry's, The Great Influenza, The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History