Spanish Flu

New York City fared better than Boston and Philadelphia during the 1918 flu epidemic

By Amita Parashar


Typist wearing a face mask to protect against infection. (Wikimedia Commons)

Between 1918 and 1919, the Spanish flu, as it came to be called, made its way around the globe, killing between 20 and 50 million people. Although the virus made one of its earliest appearances in Queens (in March 1918), New York emerged from the epidemic relatively unscathed. Experts say that New York City had the best public health department in the world at that time, and thus fared better than other American cities. Some 30,000 New Yorkers died: a death rate of 4.7 per 1,000 people as opposed to 6.5 and 7.3 for Boston and Philadelphia, respectively. The city’s infrastructure allowed public health workers to reuse quarantine hospitals, create ordinances against spitting and establish timetables for business hours in order to decongest the subways, preventing transmission.

At the same time, though, the city seemed strangely unconcerned about the epidemic. Newspapers wrote about it only sporadically. Then-health commissioner, Royal Copeland, saw no need to alarm New Yorkers. “You haven’t heard of doughboys getting it, have you? You bet, you haven’t … no need for our people to worry over the matter,” he said. As influenza appeared at the city’s ports, some ships, like the Bergensfjord of Norway, were quarantined, but others were let through. Officials did not want to interrupt the passage of troops and supplies for a very small virus. Historian Alfred Crosby wrote that New York’s government and people ignored the flu to an “amazing extent.” They were, it would seem, amazingly lucky.


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