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When Spanish flu came to Boston 100 years ago

An emergency flu hospital in Brookline.National Archives

One hundred years ago Monday, two sailors reported to the sick bay at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier with flu-like symptoms.

No one knew what would come next: a devastating epidemic of Spanish flu that would spread across the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and travel around the world, killing tens of millions.

“The scale of the loss of life was overwhelming,” said Peter Drummey, the librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The disease spread quickly, infecting about 100 new sailors per day that first week, and it eventually spread to Boston civilians by early September, according to a report from the Boston City Archives.

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An article in the Sept. 6, 1918, issue of The Boston Globe includes advice to the public from John S. Hitchcock, the head of the Massachusetts Department of Health’s division of communicable diseases, on how to avoid the powerful flu, as state officials were scrambling to reduce the disease’s impact.

“The malady appears to be in the nature of old-fashioned grippe,” Hitchcock said. “People should be reminded that under these conditions persons with coughs and colds are not choice companions, and that a good doctor is a friend.”

Nurses making anti-flu masks in Boston for soldiers at Camp DevensNational Archives

Unfortunately for the people of Boston, the sickness spread rapidly and a Sept. 18 issue of the Globe reported that of the 2,273 people who had reported falling ill, 47 had died, including “one of the best-known doctors in the city,” Thomas F. Leen.

By the end of that first month, the disease had spread beyond Boston, holding an increasingly tight grip on the state as a whole. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Calvin Coolidge, who would become president a few years later, the state began to take more aggressive measures.

On Sept. 25, the Emergency Public Health Committee requested that all public gatherings be called off and that schools and “places of amusement,” like movie theaters and saloons, be temporarily shut down.

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But by Sept. 29, more than 100 Boston residents were dying from the flu every day, according to a Globe article. On Oct. 7 alone, 190 people died.

“It’s probably too easy afterward to ask why more wasn’t done,” Drummey said. “The efforts of the city were heroic, but largely ineffective.”

Nevertheless, medical authorities were announcing by mid-October that the peak of the epidemic was showing signs of passing.

Hospital equipment at Wesleyan University in ConnecticutNational Archives

By the end of the month, the Globe reported that the “joy-killing bans” on public gatherings and theaters, saloons, and soda fountains had been lifted.

The epidemic was waning, but it continued to kill people through the spring of 1919. Early on, the spread of the disease was facilitated by the fact that many of the state’s doctors and nurses were in Europe, helping to treat soldiers in the midst of World War I.

“There was a drain on the medical capacity at the very time this crisis hit,” Drummey said.

When the war ended in November, people congregated in public spaces throughout the city to celebrate, and the number of reported cases of the flu spiked, said Marta Crilly, an archivist at Boston City Archives. The same happened after Christmas, when people got together with their families and friends.

Approximately 4,023 people died from the Spanish flu in Boston, and even more died from other illnesses related to the flu, like pneumonia, Crilly said. About 675,000 people died from the Spanish flu in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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At least 50 million people worldwide died from the disease, according to the CDC, though some estimates put that number as high as 100 million people.

The disease spread nationwide killing 675,000. Police in Seattle are shown taking precautions.National Archives
A public service message on the inside of a trolley in CincinnatiNational Archives

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andres Picon can be reached at andres.picon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andpicon.