200 Plus

How Spanish Flu Invaded the U.S.

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Aug 15, 2018

In mid-August 1918, most Americans were following the progress of the war in France. It is hard to believe that tens of thousands of them would not live to see the final victory on Nov. 11 and more Americans would die at home from something called the Spanish flu over those three months than would from all the German shells, bullets and gas at the front.

Throughout that summer, Americans had read of the disease sweeping Europe, killing thousands on both sides of the conflict, but most felt they were safe, isolated on this side of the Atlantic. When on Aug. 14 papers carried a story of a Norwegian ship having flu on board, which had killed four people, there was little alarm. But a New York Times article published the next day was worrisome.

“There were cases of influenza, Spanish or some other kind, aboard a Norwegian steamer when she arrived at Quarantine on Tuesday and when she tied up at her pier. This statement was made yesterday by Dr. Leland E. Cofer, Health Officer of the port, and was confirmed by Health Commissioner Copeland. However, all the patients transferred from the ship to the Norwegian Hospital in Brooklyn now have pneumonia. … Dr. Cofer permitted the steamer to proceed to her pier. He had no opinion to express as to whether it might be well to establish such a quarantine, but Dr. Copeland said there would be a meeting of the New York Board of Health today.”

The passengers were free to go ashore, and the New York Department of Health issued a notice saying, “From the reports of the physicians attending the cases in the Norwegian Hospital, we have no reason to believe that the illnesses are the same as those which caused the European epidemic. The hospital physicians say the patients have pneumonia.”

On the 16th, the Times did some investigation.

“Apparently the health officers soon became doubtful of the wisdom of letting the ship come up. Yesterday Health Department Inspectors and Port Inspectors went to Quarantine to examine members of the crew and passengers who had not already passed quarantine. To some extent this was locking the stable door after the horse had been stolen. It may be true, as Dr. Copeland says that ‘the public has no reason for alarm,’ since, through the protection afforded by our most efficient Quarantine Station and the constant vigilance of the city’s authorities, all protection that sanitary science can give is assured. … There is no necessity for alarm and nobody is going to be alarmed; but perhaps the health authorities of the port and the city have been a little eager to reassure the public, which prefers the truth to official demulcents.”

On another page in the same issue it was reported, “Eleven more cases of Spanish influenza, or whatever it is, were reported at quarantine yesterday from a ship arriving from one of the Scandinavian countries. The ship’s surgeon reported that all his patients were in the convalescent state and none had developed pneumonia. The ship was passed. … Dr. Cofer, Health Officer of the Port of New York, was asked yesterday if he intended to establish at this port a quarantine against foreign-bred influenza.

“‘I am glad you asked that question since it gives me an opportunity to clear up an evident confusion in the minds of many of the people of this city,’ he said. ‘To give you first a direct answer to your question, I do not intend to establish a quarantine against influenza, Spanish or any other kind.’”

On the 17th, the New York Sun had some official advice.

“Further self-denial was urged upon New Yorkers yesterday as a result of the possibility that Spanish influenza may make its appearance here. Dr. Royal S. Copeland, Commissioner of Health officially advised against kissing, ‘except through a handkerchief.’ Although perhaps distasteful to some devotees of the sport, it was explained in this connection that the precaution would be found both simple and effective as a means of evading the disease.”

There were other precautions.

“In addition to the warning against anything save the ‘handkerchief kiss’ the Board of Health is to issue a number of other ‘don’ts’ which the officials say will aid greatly in checking any possible epidemic. They are as follows: ‘Don’t spit in public places; don’t use common drinking cups, glasses, spoons, forks and similar articles. There is special danger in drinking from glasses that have not been washed.’”

The next day the New York Herald carried a story explaining the steps being taken.

“With the arrival in port yesterday of a large Dutch steamship and the reports of deaths aboard and several cases of Spanish influenza vigorous steps were taken by health authorities to safeguard New York. Dr. Royal S. Copeland, Health Commissioner, yesterday directed physicians and nurses of the Department of Health to make a house to house search for persons who recently arrived here from Europe on board ships where cases of the disease were treated.”

Copeland again reassured the city.

“I cannot make it too plain that the measures we are taking are emergency ones and necessary to protect the public from possibility of contracting the so-called Spanish influenza. I want to give reassurance there is no cause for alarm, as no cases of influenza have been reported as having their inception in this city. We have asked private physicians to notify us at once of any cases.”

Then he spoke to the entire nation.

“We do not expect an epidemic in this city, as I have said before. Our people here, and that goes for the entire United States, are less prone to contract the disease than those in some countries in Europe, because they are able to get plenty of nourishing food. Influenza attacks the German troops because their weakened constitutions, due to lack of good food, could not resist. You don’t hear of influenza among our soldiers in France as spreading, or here.”

Other actions were being taken.

“In our present precautionary measures to minimize possibility of influenza spreading we will see that theatres, moving picture houses and other places, indoors of course where persons congregate, are well ventilated. We have placed an absolute ban on spitting in public. I wish there was a way of punishing persons who sneeze in public, meaning, also sneezing into the faces of their neighbors, and neglect to employ a handkerchief to prevent possible germs from scattering to the four winds. I wish to state again, and as emphatically as I can, that we need have no cause for alarm.”

On Aug. 20, after all of the assurances and the bans on kissing and spitting, the Brooklyn Eagle announced, “That the so-called Spanish influenza, which has almost reached plague proportions in European countries, has manifested itself here in a mild form was the assertion made yesterday by Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland.”

Copeland finally admitted, “Researches made by experts in the Department’s laboratories indicate that in a few cases symptoms of Spanish influenza are found, and these in a very mild form.”

The Spanish flu had crossed the Atlantic and was officially in New York City. Would it cross the Hudson River into New Jersey and beyond? Were the New York officials the guilty party in the popular nursery rhyme of the day “I opened up a window and in – flu – Enza”?

Next Week: Friendly-fire tragedy.


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