HealthcareStatewide NewsA Century Ago, the Spanish Flu Brought Familiar Challenges to Texas

As our own pandemic spreads, Texans a century ago faced a similar fight against the Spanish Flu, but with far fewer tools at hand.
April 23, 2020
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In the final year of the Great War which ravaged much of continental Europe, a different menace spread like wildfire across the globe: the Spanish Flu.

The Spanish Flu has — for obvious reasons — been added back into contemporary discussion. Its death toll outnumbered that of World War I in half the time.

Over 50 million people across the world died from influenza during its outbreak — about double the number who died from the Black Plague which wiped out two-thirds of the world’s population — with 675,000 deaths in the U.S.

Approximately 2,100 died in Texas from influenza, about four times the current number of deaths from coronavirus — albeit without both the increased movement and medical resources we have today. Most of Texas’ deaths occurred between September and October of 1918.

The eastern regions of the United States were hit much harder and earlier than the southwest and west coast.

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A licensed vaccine for influenza was not developed until the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Somewhat similar to today’s outbreak, the Spanish flu was a respiratory infection that in some instances would cause the infected lungs to fill with liquid, inducing suffocation.

According to a Stanford University post, influenza is believed to have originated in China. The disease gets its name from the early large mortality rate it caused in the Iberian Peninsula country — reportedly eight million in one month.

Another reason for the “Spanish” moniker is that Spain was neutral in the war, and so the press was able to more freely reveal the suffering the flu wreaked on its population. Many countries, the U.S. included under Woodrow Wilson and his Committee on Public Information, regularly censored reports. European countries affected by the flu, especially, censored their coverage.

Similar to today’s virus, influenza was also rumored to have been maliciously created by an enemy as a sort of bioweapon, except in 1918 Germany was the accused.

There is currently no evidence to support either this theory or that coronavirus, today, was created by China for this purpose.

The Spanish Flu reached Texas, according to the Texas State Historical Association, in October of 1918 when it infected two army encampments: Houston’s Camp Logan and San Antonio’s Camp Travis.

Army camps were the first infection sites in the U.S. due to the return of American soldiers from continental Europe during the war, the epicenter of the disease. The first reported case of Spanish influenza in America occurred at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas in March of 1918.

The flu largely disappeared over the summer months but returned for a second wave in the fall.

And given that it seemed to afflict those in their 20s more than others, military bases were ripe for desolation.

The ensuing reaction sparked similar edicts to what we see today, as city boards of health closed all places of public gathering. One such example was the Mayor of Victoria closing all churches, schools, movie theaters, and more.

In Dallas, the mayor abstained from closing all public areas until October 10, 1918 — weeks after influenza first spread and over 1,000 people had been infected. 

Tensions flared between business owners and Dallas officials after the city closed their establishments but kept schools open — which was done to keep children in “well-ventilated buildings where they could be monitored for illness rather than in dingy homes or on the city’s streets.”

By November 2, less than a month later, the Dallas mayor rescinded his closure of public areas and businesses.

In the fall of 1918, Catholic and Episcopalian churches in Dallas had to request permission to hold All Saints Day services in memorial of American soldiers who died on the battlefields of France.

El Paso made similar orders as Fort Bliss brought influenza to its doorstep. During one week in October, 131 El Pasoans died — half the death total of October, entirely.

In Austin, city officials effectively shut down the town for a month and suffered about 200 deaths from the disease.

Lubbock, meanwhile, closed public places but allowed grocery stores, hotels, and restaurants to remain open provided sanitary standards were followed. Lubbock record-keeping shows the death count attributable is “at least 10.”

Almost two decades removed from its devastation at the hands of the hurricane, Galveston was slow to react. During the height of the fall spread, 112 of its citizens died from influenza — most were adults aged 20 to 50.

No record of executive action taken by the governor, William P. Hobby, regarding influenza could be found. Most actions were issued at a local level.

Looking back a century through the lenses of both hindsight and our own contemporary pandemic, today we are far better equipped to weather such a contagion.

Medical developments over the last century are even more drastic than, say, the differences between the Ford Model T and a 2020 Ferrari. The ability to track data, almost instantaneously, is one of the biggest.

Today, we have actual testing capabilities but influenza’s symptoms — unlike COVID-19’s — almost exclusively showed soon after a person would contract the disease.

There is not a whole lot new under the sun. Coronavirus is just the latest pandemic the world, and Texas, has faced and many of these same challenges we are met with today — such as the balance between public health and economic health — were featured a century ago.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.