The 1918 Flu Epidemic: The Importance of a Coordinated Response

The 1918 Pandemic lasted just 15 months but was the deadliest disease outbreak in human history, killing between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide and 670,000 Americans. When the US entered World War I in 1917, government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories ... cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.” This was the background then that influenza began to bleed into American life, and public health officials, determined to keep morale up, began to lie.

Each day the disease accelerated. Each day newspapers assured readers that influenza posed no danger. Philadelphia's public health director, Wilmer Krusen, declared in September 1918 that he would “nip the epidemic in the bud.” As various cities responded differently to the threat, the death toll would reflect the uncoordinated response.

This is the third lecture in a series entitled First Responders: Then and Now, which will investigate the intersection between health crises, immigrants, and personal freedom at various points in US history. This series has been funded in part by Humanities New York, with the support of the National Endownment for the Humanities.