Our History: A Look Back at the Flu Pandemic of 1918 in Watertown

Print More

This is the first of a series of stories on Watertown history that originally appeared in the Historical Society of Watertown’s newsletter:

The following story was written by David J. Russo, for the January 2012 Historical Society newsletter, “The Town Crier”. At the time, David was the Historical Society Recording Secretary and Chair of the Watertown Historical Commission.

Watertown’s Flu Pandemic of 1918

This fall we’ve been reminded to get our annual flu shot. Our public health officials advise that the minimal inconvenience and pain of the shot is far better than the malady itself. As one who has had both a flu shot and the flu, I would heartily agree.

It’s interesting to look back at the history of influenza and see the impact it has had on Watertown, especially the catastrophic pandemic flu of 1918 that killed 30 million around the world, at least 500,000 in the United States and many here in town.

Watertown was geographically very close to where the first cases of flu developed in the United States: Commonwealth Pier in Boston on August 27, 1918. Returning troops from Europe during World War I carried the easily transmittable disease that had been raging through Europe. Symptoms included high fever, body aches, sore throat and general weakness. The onset of symptoms was horrifyingly fast: one to two hours to feel the full effects of the disease, followed by a severe case of pneumonia that many could not survive. Public health officials naively believed that we would be spared the devastating impact because we were “well-nourished” and had better sanitation standards than other places.

And this was the basic problem. No one knew what caused the flu or how it spread. Without that knowledge, there was no way to adequately prepare for and manage the disease as a matter of public health. Flu is transmitted easily in the droplets of breath by a microscopic virus that wouldn’t be discovered for decades. The potential for it to run unchecked through the population was enormous.

So there was Watertown, less than six miles from flu’s entry point to the United States, like a sitting duck. The first flu cases were reported in the Watertown Tribune-Enterprise, in late September.

“. . . Influenza Takes Toll in Watertown,” the headline read on September 27, 1918, with reports about the disease affecting almost every household in town, hospitals filled to overcapacity and public gatherings of all kinds cancelled, including church services and classes in the local schools. The listing of names in the newspaper of those who succumbed also began and it would be a sobering reminder of the toll this disease would take.

Unfortunately, again, the lack of basic knowledge about flu may have unwittingly helped transmit it. To avoid the disease the authorities urged “everyone to keep out of doors as much as possible to take advantage of the sunshine and to exercise.” Keeping active outside is probably a good thing for general health, but its effect on staving-off flu was limited. People were also encouraged to avoid crowded conditions, and coughing and sneezing around others (all correct observations) and “overeating” (an incorrect observation). Those taking care of others were encouraged to simply wear medical masks to provide important protection against the flu, which we now know was ineffective. And even if it somehow worked, securing the mask adequately on one’s face was difficult and the masks were uncomfortable to wear for any length of time.

The following week, the paper reported that more than 1,000 people had contracted the flu and more than 30 died. Nonetheless, Watertown began to rally itself and numbers of volunteers and churches stepped forward to assist those too ill to take care of themselves and families. This was an important measure of success in the epidemic that many other communities could not match. We had volunteers who were willing to help. There was no treatment for the flu and doctors and nurses only managed symptoms. There was an enormous need for non-medical help to cook, clean and help maintain households. Whole families were sometimes ill and unable to take care of themselves.

The volunteers also helped to bury the dead. In any epidemic in which there is high mortality, the dead must be buried quickly and cannot be left in the streets or unattended in hospitals or homes.

This avoids social break down at a critical point. Watertown again rose to the challenge when our gravediggers were too ill to work and the Selectmen offered the town laborers to help bury the dead. Gruesome work, surely, but we handled the work as a community.

Even though conditions in Watertown were somewhat better than other places, public gatherings were still either cancelled or avoided by many. Perhaps the anxiousness the people felt about public gatherings was similar to ours immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Finally, by October 25, the epidemic had begun to wane and the bans on public gatherings had been lifted. Schools, which had been closed for almost a full month, reopened. Nonetheless the deaths would continue over the next few months as weakened immune systems made people more
susceptible to disease and to the pneumonia that often followed the flu.

The number of dead was immense. In 1917, from September through December, there were 80 deaths reported in Watertown. In 1919, the number was 50; but in 1918 during the epidemic, the number was a staggering 203. Alarmingly, the highest proportion of the dead was among people aged 18-45. In 1918, the number of deaths between September and December for that group was 108, while in 1917 and 1919 it was 19 and 9 respectively.

There were people behind these numbers. A particularly heart-wrenching death notice read, “Mrs. Maud Dailey, wife of Henry Dailey of Riverside Street, died on Thursday, her 13-year old daughter, Velina A. Dailey died yesterday. Mrs. Dailey was buried at Ridgelawn on Sunday and her daughter will be buried tomorrow.” It doesn’t get much worse than that.

This disease was a killer of young people and the ranks of Watertown’s youth must have depreciated markedly. The loss to Watertown, not to mention the loss to individual families, must have been profound.

Almost 100 years have passed since the pandemic flu of 1918. As we remember the devastating impact that the disease had here and around the world, the importance of factual medical information and community involvement should be highlighted as lessons for future generations.

Find out more about the Historical Society of Watertown at www.historicalsocietyofwatertownma.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *