The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919

Historical Article Series May 10, 2020 > The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 54, No. 1, April 2018

This year’s flu season has been the worst in nearly a decade.  But it pales in comparison the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 which killed some 20 million worldwide. [Note: This article was written two years prior to this year’s coronavirus pandemic.]

As soldiers began to return home from the Great War, now known as World War I, some brought with them a deadly virus known as the Spanish flu. It was a particularly virulent strain of the H1N1 virus that still plagues us today.  At that time there were no flu vaccines to provide immunity nor any effective means to treat it.

In the United States, an estimated twenty-five million fell ill, and six hundred and seventy-five thousand died. Eighty five hundred died in Connecticut alone.  Unlike regular strains of the flu that mostly affect the weak, old and very young, the Spanish flu affected people of every demographic.

Influenza Flyer 1918
United States Public health service flyer, 1918 – Library of Congress, American Memory

The first outbreak of influenza in Connecticut occurred in the port city of New London. By the third week of September 1918, some 600 to 700 influenza cases were reported in the city. About half of those stricken were service personnel.  

From there, the illness spread rapidly north and then west across the state.  The number of cases quickly overwhelmed Connecticut’s healthcare system.  In October the State Council of Defense issued an official call for additional medical aid. Clara Atkins of Mansfield was among those asked to provide nursing care for patients ill from influenza. Her Official Call letter, dated October 11, 1918, is preserved in our archives.  

Mansfield was visited by the influenza epidemic around the first of October, 1918. Between October of 1918 and April of 1919, 444 cases were reported.  And there were many other cases that went unreported. Of the reported cases, 288 occurred during October. A second outbreak occurred in December, with 126 cases reported.  

During a part of this time the local schools were closed and fear of influenza kept people from gathering. Church attendance dropped, and was even canceled for a few weeks in October.  

The newly formed Mansfield State Training School and Hospital was affected most harshly. Out of the approximate 300 patients, there were 200 cases of the flu, and about 30 patients died. The treatment of all these cases fell on Dr. LaMoure, the only physician, and one nurse.

Surprisingly, the Connecticut Agricultural College was not hit hard by the epidemic. Only a few students were recorded as contracting mild cases of the flu in early October. Daily inspections of noses and throats were held to ensure that the illness did not spread. 

Edwina Maud Whitney, librarian at the Connecticut Agricultural College and Storrs resident, left voluminous diaries that are filled with her observations and comments about the campus and town communities.In the following excerpts from her diaries, she writes about the effect of the influenza outbreak on the college and town of Mansfield. She also describes its tragic impact on some local families. 

October 1, 1918:  The U.S. Military Dept. took over the college today.* Rather impressive ceremony though there were only about 100 there as the Influenza epidemic has kept many away.  College is not to open formally till Oct. 10.  Dr. Simonds is not able to give physical ex. as he also is sick with influenza.

[* In July of 1918, the Connecticut Agricultural College entered into a contract with the War Department.  It became one of six hundred U.S. colleges to give three months training to men of the Students’ Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C). Of the 411 men who enrolled in the program, 278 were inducted on October 21, just three weeks before the Armistice was signed.  The war ended before their training was completed.  They were discharged shortly before Christmas but many continued on as regular students at the college.]

October 5: Influenza continues to spread.  Everybody alarmed.  All schools in town closed.  Many deaths. Willimantic is specially scourged.  Several of our boys sick. I am not especially alarmed but think it best to be cautious.

October 6: No church today because of the epidemic….

October 7: Little Dorothy Parker [age 13] was buried today, the first victim of the influenza hereabouts.  Two of the other children are sick Elizabeth & the baby.  Some others around here are sick, but it is not probable they have the real influenza. College opening postponed again till 20th.

October 8: A child (boy) of Albert Warren (deceased) died yesterday in Willimantic.  That family has lost so many.  No evident lessening of the epidemic in Willimantic.

October 23: Two of the new [S.A.T.C.] boys take with influenza. Just got here.  

December 15: Influenza is around again quite seriously.

December 22: The Kerwins still sick. Viola has come down with influenza today very sick. Fever over 104. But they will not have a Doctor. They may get well but it is a foolish risk I think.

December 23: A sad record today. Florence Kerwin died at 4:30 of pneumonia following influenza…  Ruth too very sick. They had a Doctor this morning but too late for Florence. Viola some better. It is a great shock.  Florence was a dear sweet girl, 16 years old. I mourn for her as if she really were my niece.

December 24:  Things have not bettered much at the Kerwins.  Ruth has pneumonia & they have taken her to St. Josephs. John has a temperature of 103.  Baby is sick. Viola has also now pneumonia. Poor Jim is about crazy between remorse at not having the Dr. sooner & grief for he certainly loved Florence, as did the whole community…  

December 25: This has been I think the saddest Christmas I ever spent. We had no celebration as Pearl felt too melancholy and sad to do any cooking & neither Mother nor I wanted anything done either.

December 26:  We laid little Florence away today. It was inexpressibly sad.  No one of her immediate family could be present but her father. The community sent a lovely wreath. Maiden hair, blush carnations, lilies and marguerites. Quite a few came out. It was hard to see her lowered down she who less than a week ago was a bright beautiful girl.

December 27: A very sad day again. Kerwin was summoned by telephone this morning to his wife in the hospital who was very low. We have not heard tonight if she is still alive, but we fear not.  Johnny & Winifred were taken to the hospital this morning. John has a temperature of 104 & they are anxious for him. Winifred not so sick but they know she needs care.

Viola had temperature of 106 all last night. Do not see how she can survive but she may pull through. (Ruth died this afternoon at 3:30.)

December 29: Ruth was laid today beside her beloved daughter.  It was at 10 o’clock this morning & but few were out. Poor woman, her life was not a short & merry one. But she married, bore children & rejoiced in them.  It seems sad to think she is gone…  

December 30: Poor little Viola died this morning at four o’clock. That makes the third from the family. I hope now the dread disease is stopped and the pestilence fiend satisfied. It is all too dreadful to think or talk about.  

January 1, 1919: Poor little Viola was buried today. I was the only outsider there. The third in the family. All the rest seem to be doing well so perhaps the angel of deaths is satisfied now. Mr. Rosebrooks (the sexton) says that is the 5th grave he has dug within a week. It is the worst time he ever knew for deaths.

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