Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Washington’s Lost Month: the 1918-19 Spanish Influenza Epidemic in the District of Columbia

Washington’s Lost Month: the 1918-19 Spanish Influenza Epidemic in the District of Columbia

By Matthew B. Gilmore

[CLICK HERE for complete article: http://intowner.com/2018/10/01/washingtons-lost-month-the-1918-19-spanish-influenza-epidemic-in-the-district-of-columbia/ ]

CLICK HERE for a timeline of the month: https://matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com/timeline-washingtons-lost-month-the-1918-19-spanish-influenza-epidemic-in-the-district-of-columbia/

It all began (we now believe) in Kansas. But news reports of the influenza epidemic, also known as the grippe, first trickled in from Europe.



During the spring and into summer of 1918 reports came in. “Berlin is sneezing” ran one headline in the Baltimore Sun in June. The disease took on a new name “Spanish Influenza” — most European news was censored due to the war, but Spain was neutral, and news flowed more freely.

Public concern may have been tempered by a vague sort of familiarity; there had been the “Russian influenza” epidemic in 1889-‘90. [1] But those too young to remember the experience (and those who hadn’t been born) 30 years previous could not know what to expect. The drumbeat of reports from Europe continued. Germans called it “Flanders Fever.” “Did they Breed It Themselves,” asked one headline.

By early September it had crossed the Atlantic and struck Boston; by September 11 it was reaching “serious proportions.” Victims included not just common soldiers but prominent government figures too — Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Under Secretary of the Navy, contracted influenza which progressed to pneumonia.


It struck Washington, DC in September. The first casualty died on the 28th — widowed railway man John William Clore from Culpeper, Virginia. He died at Sibley Hospital. [2] The day previous Health Officer William C. Fowler had visited the first suspected cases of influenza, that of Lt. Arthur Henne and his wife. [3]

Despite its severity, the influenza pandemic of 1918-‘19 seemingly has disappeared from Washington, DC’s memory. Washington’s government, as those of all cities across the country were overwhelmed. The only readily available account of the epidemic (besides the dry statistics of government reports) is that of District of Columbia Commissioner Louis Brownlow. Brownlow’s account appears in the second volume of his autobiography, in a chapter titled “Problems mount.” His two commissioner colleagues were laid up with the disease, leaving him with sole executive responsibility. Brownlow had close experience with the epidemic — a cousin of his visiting Washington early in September was stricken. Brownlow himself had a milder case. [4]


[CLICK HERE for complete article: http://intowner.com/2018/10/01/washingtons-lost-month-the-1918-19-spanish-influenza-epidemic-in-the-district-of-columbia/ ]

Despite decades of research the 1918-‘19 pandemic remains much a medical mystery. Recent historical research suggests an origin in Haskell County, Kansas, then travelled to Europe with American troops. [9] Death toll estimates range widely from 50 to 100 million worldwide. It is estimated that 650,000 people died in the United States. The greatest unsolved mystery is why its victims were its victims. Influenza usually was most fatal to the young and the old; but in the case of the Spanish Influenza, “nearly half of the influenza-related deaths in the 1918 pandemic were in young adults 20–40 years of age, a phenomenon unique to that pandemic year.” Recent research suggests that early exposure to the Russian influenza strain in 1889 and 1890 led to a hyperactive immunological response — victim’s own immune systems killing them. [10]

Washington was overcrowded and in upheaval due to war workers for the Great War, with an influx of approximately 20,000 people, pushing the population well past the 400,000 mark. The Health Officer’s 1919 summary of the epidemic has (seemingly) the precision of hard numbers detailing the toll of the influenza:

“General mortality. — The total number of deaths occurring during the calendar year 1918 was 9,582, as compared with 6,687 for the preceding year. The death rate increased from 16.89 to 22.95. The figures show that 2,895 more deaths occurred in 1918 than during the preceding year. This remarkable increase was due to the epidemic of influenza which prevailed throughout the entire country during the latter part of the calendar year. Influenza was responsible for 2,028 deaths of the deaths recorded and pneumonia 1,298 deaths. It is believed that the deaths from pneumonia were largely the result of the influenza.” [11]

[CLICK HERE for complete article: http://intowner.com/2018/10/01/washingtons-lost-month-the-1918-19-spanish-influenza-epidemic-in-the-district-of-columbia/ ]

References and Resources

See resource list   What Once Was: Washington’s Lost Month–References and Resources

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