City Snapshots: Philadelphia
Officials in Philadelphia knew what was coming their way. All
through September 1918 they had seen reports coming out of Boston of a
virulent, deadly influenza. In fact, the Philadelphia Bureau of Public Health
had issued a bulletin about the so-called Spanish Influenza as early as July
1918. Despite the prescience of some, Philadelphia's health and city officials
had still failed to even list influenza as a reportable disease, thereby
putting the city's population of nearly two million in grave danger.
The timing of the epidemic's arrival in Philadelphia could not have been worse.
Over one-quarter of the city's doctors, and a larger portion of its nurses,
were lending their medical talents to the nation's war efforts. At Philadelphia
Hospital, fully 75% of medical and support staff were overseas. Such personnel
shortages were an issue even before influenza had hit; once it did,
lack of adequate medical help became a matter of life or death.
Misinformation, and perhaps wishful thinking, added fuel to the influenza's
fire. While the Bureau of Health was issuing directives concerning public
coughing, sneezing, and spitting, Dr. A.A. Cairns and Wilmer Krusen of the
Department of Health and Charities were assuring the public that the illness
would not spread beyond military personnel. In late September, Dr. Paul Lewis,
director of the Philips Institute of Philadelphia, aroused great hope by
declaring that he had identified the cause of this influenza: Pfeiffer's
bacillus. The confidence of the medical community quickly spilled over into the
general population with dire consequences.
On September 28, two hundred thousand gathered for a 4th Liberty Loan Drive.
Funding the war effort and showing one's patriotic colors took precedence over
concern for public health. Just days after the parade, 635 new cases of
influenza were reported. Two days later, the city was forced to admit that
epidemic conditions did indeed exist. Churches, schools, and theaters were
ordered closed, along with all places of "public amusement." Members of the
press condemned the closings as a violation of common sense and personal
freedom. Meanwhile, the ranks of the sick and dying continued to grow. By
mid-October their numbers ran into the hundreds of thousands. Hospitals quickly
reached capacity. Church parish houses and state armories doubled as shelters
for the sick.
Just as medical facilities were pushed to the brink, so too were medical
personnel. Able-bodied doctors were summoned from retirement, while novice
medical students were plucked from their studies to tend to the sick. Often,
there was little they could do; by the third week in October the death toll in
Philadelphia attributed to influenza had soared to over 4500. Along
with public horror over the intensifying epidemic came public outcries
concerning attempts by some to line their pockets through the misery of others.
Certain undertakers raised their prices by more than 500% as grieving families
sought proper burials for their loved ones. Tales spread throughout the city of
individuals being forced to pay fifteen dollars to dig graves for their
deceased family members.
What to do with the growing piles of corpses became a question not just of
common decency, but a matter of public health. Rotting cadavers often spurred
on secondary infections. The city of Philadelphia was forced to appeal to the
federal government to meet their need for embalmers. In an effort to combat
this and other epidemic-related problems, the Philadelphia Council of National
Defense mobilized a Bureau of Information. Special phone lines were designated
for influenza-only questions. At one point, the Bell Telephone Company
restricted calls of a non-medical nature, owing in part to the depletion of
their employee ranks due to flu.
On October 19, 1918, Dr. C. Y. White announced that he had developed a vaccine
that would prevent Spanish Influenza. In short order, over ten thousand
complete series of inoculations were delivered to the Philadelphia Board of
Health. Whether or not the so-called vaccine played much of a role in loosening
this strain of influenza's grip on Philadelphia was a matter of much debate. Mortality
and morbidity rates did fall after the vaccine was introduced, but some health
officials maintained that the flu had already reached its peak and was waning
As November rolled around, Philadelphia, like the rest of the nation, turned
its rapt attention to the armistice ending the Great War. Slowly life returned
to normal. But few would, or could, forget the horrible toll exacted by the
influenza of 1918, as the City of Brotherly Love lost nearly 13,000 of her
citizens in a matter of weeks.