Spanish flu's effects were devastating in 1918

Hope against the flu
Hope against the flu
This News And Sentinel editorial cartoon published on Oct. 16, 1918, captured one of the moments of hope that the Spanish influenza epidemic was fading and bans on public gatherings would be lifted. All the churchgoers are wearing disinfectant masks, as health regulations required at the time.
By Connie Haas Zuber of The News-Sentinel

Maureen Gaff thinks about the Fort Wayne man who died two days after losing his brother to the flu, leaving his wife and newborn baby deathly ill. They were people she didn't know about until she started studying the Spanish flu's devastating effect on Fort Wayne in 1918.

"I think what affected me emotionally the most was all the tragic stories of different families," she said. "Entire families would die from it."

Gaff, now the supervisor of the historical research center for the Allen County Public Library Foundation, researched the Spanish flu for her senior history seminar at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. She graduated in 1994, and her paper was published in the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society's "Old Fort News" in 1997.

She's writing a book about the Aveline family, French traders who settled in Fort Wayne. Her husband, Alan, is a historian and writer, too. (His latest book, "On Many a Bloody Field," a Civil War history, was a best seller. A paperback version is coming out this month from IU Press, she said.)

Worldwide, the Spanish flu killed 20 million people during the fall and winter of 1918-1919. In the United States, between 500,000 and 700,000 died of the Spanish flu. Within the last quarter of 1917, the year before the epidemic, 976 people died from flu and pneumonia in Indiana. By comparison, in the height of the epidemic in the last quarter of 1918, 8,845 people died in Indiana from the same causes, according to information from the Indiana State Department of Health. Totals are not available for Fort Wayne and Allen County, but Gaff's research indicates Fort Wayne was spared a higher death toll because government authorities all but shut down the entire town from October through New Year's Eve, 1918

"Another thing that really amazed me was Fort Wayne was almost like a police state because of the government regulations. They told you where you could shop, when you could shop, when you could go to work," she said.

The world had not faced such a deadly pandemic disease since the Black Death of the 1300s, Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Ron Iverson said.

Scientists were unable to identify the virus, and no vaccines or treatments were available.

"They were at the mercy of the flu," he said. "They had to go by efforts to avoid it, using masks, avoiding congregating and quarantining houses where people were sick, which would be moderately effective at best."

The first influenza deaths of Fort Wayne people were two soldiers stationed in Michigan, reported on Oct. 4, 1918.

"For months afterward, Fort Wayne newspapers would print obituaries of influenza victims on an almost daily basis," Gaff says in her paper.

The prevention tactics were successful enough, though, to establish ongoing respect for the health agencies that had led the efforts.

"The Allen County Board of Health grew out of that epidemic," Iverson said. "It gave birth to a lot of health departments."

Everyday life was sacrificed to the preventive efforts. Schools were closed, churches were forbidden to have worship services, clubs could not meet, and all entertainments were shut down. Only businesses and some retail stores remained open, but with strictly enforced rules about hours and how many people could shop at one time. Even the families who escaped losing a loved one to the flu were hurt by the lost wages.

In the early weeks, local Boy Scouts helped survey residents and distribute information, but as the epidemic developed, it was apparent that younger people were the ones falling ill and dying.

"Children had been treated like pariahs during the last wave of the disease," Gaff says in her paper. "A front-page story in the December 18th Journal Gazette proclaimed, 'Children Are the Main Flu Problem.' "

During her research, Gaff talked with one of her grandmother's friends, a woman who had grown up in Indianapolis, where masks were used, too.

"She remembers being a young child in Indianapolis and getting on the streetcar and being totally terrified of seeing all these masked adults," Gaff said. "She remembered that all her life."

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