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The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 Starts Locally

influenza notice chicago
Source: United States Department of Health and Human Services

Now that we’re clear from flu season, let’s all take a minute to be thankful for not being affected by an epidemic. In September 1918, the Great Lakes Naval Base was hit hard and fast, spreading the Spanish Influenza faster than doctors and hospitals could keep up throughout Chicago.

The naval based tried its hardest to keep from spreading the virus outside the base to Chicago, but there was no such luck. An article in the Chicago Daily Tribune from September 16, 1918, the first about the flu to appear, states that “the greatest precautionary measures have been taken to stop the spreading of influenza” at Great Lakes. All 50,000 men at the base were given daily nose and throat sprays, and sneeze screens were placed in sleeping quarters and other places.

Three days later, on September 19, the Tribune reported once again that despite 1,000 men being quarantined with a mild influenza at Great Lakes, and seven soldier-student cases at Northwestern University, medical authorities maintained that the virus was “under control.” The men were not allowed to leave Great Lakes, but visitors were allowed to enter. By this time, there were a handful of reported cases of death around the country at different military bases from the Spanish Influenza, according to the Tribune, which stemmed from being stationed abroad during the war.

However on the same day, the Libertyville Independent reported that “a rapid spread of the disease was registered in Lake Forest and Waukegan,” and the YMCA had been turned into a hospital for those affected.

On September 23, according to the Tribune, “4,500 cases of Spanish Influenza” and “more than 100 deaths since Sept.9” had been reported by Capt. William A. Moffett at the Naval base. However only about 1,000 cases were sufficiently serious enough to be transferred to the base hospital and the death rate was “comfortingly low” at 1.5 percent, so the situation remained “under control.”

Despite Moffett’s efforts to keep things at bay, Fort Sheridan had 120 reported cases by September 24, and all the student army training corps members left the base indefinitely. In Waukegan, North Chicago, Libertyville, and other nearby cities, every theater and public hall was closed, including some schools. Lake County Health Commissioner Dr. Bellows announced in late September to the Libertyville Independent Register that “all naval people are prohibited from visiting Waukegan until the disease is under control.” The Naval base had brought in nurses from Chicago to care for sailors and their families in their homes.

By September 30, all churches, schools, and theaters in areas near Great Lakes and Fort Sheridan were closed indefinitely, as well as all public dances canceled. Highland Park citizens raised $5,000 for an emergency fund, and made plans for the Exmoor Country Club to be turned into a hospital that could accommodate 100 patients.  Bowen Country Club in Waukegan was also turned over to the Red Cross and equipped with the proper necessities to become a hospital to treat those with influenza.

The Tribune reported that a “conference of medical men,” that had taken place the day before, predicted that as many as 60 out of 100 people in Chicago would fall ill with influenza during the next few months. Still, the physicians remained hopeful and said the situation was “far from gloomy” because patients had a 99 out of 100 chance of recovering.  At this time, the reports from Great Lakes were that there had been “about 9,000 cases” and “the death rate has been between 4 and 5 percent.” It was a definite increase, but not an alarming increase.

influenza cartoon national
Source: United States Department of Health and Human Services

By mid-October, the City of Chicago had jumped from the lowest death rate to the highest in its history in just four weeks. The Tribune reported on October 13 that the death count was at 111 (104 from pneumonia), and new cases reported within 24 hours was 1,233 (pneumonia 422). With each passing day, the death toll continued to climb in Chicago. In Illinois, there were 55,000 cases.

Not long after that both the Chicago Daily Tribune and the Libertyville Independent were reporting declining numbers of new influenza cases. Chicago and the surrounding areas were on the road to recovery.

In his final “Report of an Epidemic of Influenza in Chicago Occurring During the Fall of 1918,” Dr. John Dill Robertson, Chicago’s Commissioner of Health, reported that “From September 21 to November 16, 37,921 cases of influenza and 13,109 cases of pneumonia were reported or a total of 51,030 for the two combined.”  Also, “The total number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia during the eight weeks of the outbreak was 8,510…The increment in the deaths from all causes over the average for the same period during the previous three years was 7,103 or 99.2%.”

“Illinois.” . : The Great Pandemic : : The United States in 1918-1919 : . N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. <>.

“Influenza Encyclopedia.” Chicago, Illinois and the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. <>.

Robertson, John Dill, MD. “Influenza Encyclopedia.” Report and Handbook of the Department of Health of the City of Chicago for Years 1911 to 1918 Inclusive. City of Chicago, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. <>.

“Guard Sailors At Great Lakes From Influenza.” Libertyville Independent 19 Sept. 1918: 7. Print.

“Number of Influenza Deaths Drops; Situation Clears.” Libertyville Independent 10 Oct. 1918: 3. Print.

“North Shore Is Attacked by 350 Grip Cases.” Libertyville Independent 19 Sept. 1918: 3. Print.

“2 More Emergency Hospitals Are to Be Opened in City to Care for Many Sick.” Libertyville Independent 3 Oct. 1918: 1. Print.

“Epidemic of Influenza Closes Waukegan Schools; General Alarm Is Felt.” Libertyville Independent 26 Sept. 1918: 6. Print.

“Says Influenza At Great Lakes Is Not Alarming.” Chicago Daily Tribune 22 Sept. 1918: 9. Print.

“Great Lakes Die of Influenza.” Chicago Daily Tribune 23 Sept. 1918: 1. Print.

“Health in Great Lakes.” Chicago Daily Tribune 24 Sept. 1918: 6. Print.

“120 New Cases of Influenza at Sheridan in Day.” Chicago Daily Tribune 24 Sept. 1918: 13. Print.

“Epidemic Deaths at Great Lakes Reduced to 68.” Chicago Daily Tribune 25 Sept. 1918: 13. Print.

“Influenza Wave Holds Up Draft of 142,000 Men.” Chicago Daily Tribune 27 Sept. 1918: 1. Print.

“Lift Quarantine at Great Lakes; Move a Surprise.” Chicago Daily Tribune 30 Sept. 1918: 13. Print.

“Health Officers Find Influenza Epidemic Waning.” Chicago Daily Tribune 7 Oct. 1918: 17. Print.

“City Holds On in Battle With Influenza Wave.” Chicago Daily Tribune 9 Oct. 1918: 8. Print.

“’Flu’ Epidemic Passing; Death Rate Declines.” Chicago Daily Tribune 26 Oct. 1918: 8. Print.

“All ‘Flu’ Cases Quarantined by Order of City.” Chicago Daily Tribune 1 Oct. 1918: 1. Print.

Use the Handkerchief. Digital image. The Great Pandemic. United States Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

Influenza. Digital image. The Great Pandemic. United States Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2016.

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