The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

By Paul Przybyla

One hundred years ago on September 7th a soldier at Camp Devens was sent to the base hospital with an initial diagnosis of meningitis.  The next day 12 men from his company fell sick and the doctors quickly realized that they were dealing with an outbreak of influenza.  At its peak, over 1,500 soldiers at Camp Devens would report with influenza in a single day, overwhelming the base hospital with its 1,200 beds.  In her memoir Water for Soldiers , Shirley Lawton Houde wrote poignantly of soldier deaths from influenza;“A Camp telephone girl tells of ghastly days in the Devens exchange, when, with their own force rapidly falling off, the operators worked unceasingly to transmit the dreadful messages. Obliged to listen in to make sure that the connection was kept, they would hear one scream of despair after another, hour after hour, until it seemed that they could not take another call.”

The first wave of influenza hit Europe in April, 1918.  It was a milder strain of the disease and soon abated, but it resurfaced in August and spread rapidly through the battlefields, aided by the unsanitary conditions of the trenches.  This new virulent strain of influenza was first introduced to the United States at Camp Devens by returning soldiers from the Front.  Although the camp was quarantined, the flu soon spread to the area towns.

In looking at the Turner’s Public Spirit weekly newspapers of that period, the first mention of influenza in Shirley was in the edition of September 21.  It reported that schools had been closed the previous week and would remain so for a month, and the Board of Health imposed a prohibition on all public gatherings in town.  The first reports of illnesses of various townspeople revealed the terrible characteristics of this strain of flu.  Defying common logic, those most susceptible to the dangers of this flu were people in their prime of life, rather than young children or the elderly who would have weaker immune systems.  Within days of contracting the flu, its victims would develop pneumonia that often would prove fatal.

On September 29 the newspaper reported that there were about sixty cases of influenza at the Industrial School for Boys in Shirley, and on October 5 the Board of Health in Shirley reported 400 cases of influenza and 50 cases of pneumonia.  Fortunately there were no deaths at the state school but there were many young men and women in Shirley who died, tragically leaving their children without a mother or father.

By October 5, the newspaper reporter could write “Shirleyites rejoice to hear companies of men in khaki singing lustily as they swing down the road.  It is a sign of renewed spirit as the epidemic at Camp Devens is controlled.” It took a while longer for the disease to spend itself in town.  On October 26 it was reported that the following Monday schools would reopen and the ban on public gatherings would be lifted.  Churches could once again have Sunday services and the Grange and social lodges could resume their meetings.

While talked about as an epidemic during its outbreak, it has now been classified as a pandemic given the immensity of its toll.  It was the deadliest outbreak of disease in human history with 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.  In the United States the number of deaths was 670,000, far greater than the number of American casualties in World War I.