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A century ago, the US flu pandemic began in Boston

It started with several sailors who were stationed at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier strolling into the sick bay with sore throats and the chills. The next day, there were eight more cases just like it. By the third day, 58 sailors on the pier were ill.

Within months, the sickness was seemingly everywhere, and it would eventually claim the lives of thousands in Boston, and tens of thousands across the Commonwealth.

The first recorded cases of a deadly strain of virulent influenza in the US hit Boston’s shorelines 97 years ago Thursday, according to the city’s archivists, befuddling health care workers who raced to try to quell the surging epidemic.


“These ... men were the first Americans stricken with the flu, and by the end of the week, 100 new cases a day were being reported among the sailors at the pier,” according to officials from the Boston City Archives, who posted pages of official reports about the 1918 outbreak to their Facebook page Thursday.

Marta Crilly, the department’s archivist for reference and outreach, said that as her office researches the city’s history, they tend to stumble upon interesting tidbits dating back centuries.

“I file them away and pull them out on the right dates,” she said. “This morning I saw something about it being the anniversary of the flu, so I decided to look it up.”

The information shared by Crilly Thursday was plucked from reports by the Boston Health Department in 1918. The pages describe in detail the beginning stages of the spread of influenza and its horrific impact.

The documents note that the first cases of influenza began to appear in August, among the sailors of the naval camps in Boston. Doctors hypothesized that the sickness was brought to the city from Europe. In the last four months of 1918, it ran rampant.


“During September and October, it constituted a veritable epidemic, causing sickness and suffering among a large part of the population of the city and bringing death and misery into thousands of homes,” the health department wrote in one report. “From the naval forces the disease rapidly spread among the civilian population.”

Sept. 3 marked the first time a resident rather than a sailor was admitted to a city hospital for the violent flu symptoms.

A story from a Sept. 17 issue of the Boston Globe warned residents not to go into large crowds, to cover their mouths and nostrils at all costs, and to “gargle your throat at least once a day; especially after being in a congested street car or crowded room.”

But the ominous advice seemed futile.

Crilly said the spread of the flu in Boston, which led to more than 4,000 recorded deaths, was hard to contain due to the city’s crowded and sometimes unsanitary living conditions.

“Things tended to spread pretty fast, and if you look at a lot of these health reports, a lot of what they are focused on is sanitation. ... People were in pretty close quarters,” she said.

The disease hit Somerville, Sharon, Newton, and Revere. It slammed Everett, Chelsea, and Arlington — Greater Boston and beyond was overwhelmed by the sickness, according to news accounts from the time.

It even spread to the Camp Devens military base that September, where 50,000 soldiers were stationed, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services website.


A physician at the camp, according to the department’s recounting of the epidemic, described it this way: “These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of La Grippe or Influenza, and when brought to the Hosp. they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of Pneumonia that has ever been seen ... Two hours after admission they have the Mahogany spots over the cheek bones, and a few hours later you can begin to see the Cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face ... It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes.”

Tens of thousands of others across the state would die from the flu before it finally began to taper off.

“It was not until the summer of 1919 that influenza had begun to disappear from the state,” according to the US Department of Health and Human Services website. “Statisticians estimated that between Sept. 1, 1918, and Jan. 16, 1919, approximately 45,000 people died from influenza.”

Nationally, an estimated 675,000 died, while 20 to 50 million died worldwide, the department said.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.