Echoes of Another Pandemic: How The Times Covered the 1918 Flu

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From July 1918 through the middle of November, banner headlines on the front pages of The New York Times detailed the final stages of what was then the largest war in history. Each day, the colossal scope of the conflict was reflected in the operations listed on the page, from the havoc caused by German U-boats to the immense final Allied offensive.

Largely overshadowed by that coverage was another story that The Times reported: the deadliest wave of a pandemic that would kill over 20,000 New Yorkers and 675,000 Americans, and would lead to a death toll worldwide estimated to be at least 50 million.

The Times mentioned a widely covered civilian outbreak of influenza, which occurred in Madrid, on May 30, nine days after it made headlines in Spain. Although it became known as the Spanish flu, the origin of the virus is still debated. The flu was also referred to by several other words: Influenza, grip, la grippe, catarrh and sweating sickness were among the terms.

As summer turned into fall, infections began to rise in the United States, including in New York. Yet as the weeks progressed and the deaths from influenza mounted, news about the pandemic was mostly relegated to The Times’s inside pages unless it was directly related to the war.

“Even if it wasn’t on the front page, it was very widely reported,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan. “There were no secrets about it in real time. But you also have to remember, there was far less to report because the science of virology did not even exist, so nobody knew what caused influenza.”

In 1918, the first Science Times section was still over a half-century away from publication. There was no graphics department to create intricate visual journalism, and much less data to parse through if there had been. Yet under those conditions and with a crowded front page, The Times still managed to produce a robust report with many themes familiar to a reader today.

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There were closely watched cases contracted by world leaders like Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George (“Lloyd George Has Grip,” “Lloyd George Improves,” “Lloyd George Had Relapse”). Experts debated whether to close schools. Outbreaks erupted in prisons. The obituaries honored prominent locals who died from the disease. Sports were postponed, some theaters were closed and movie releases were delayed. The Times produced the occasional graphic to display a spike in infections.

Guidance from the surgeon general, Dr. Rupert Blue, appeared in the paper, including a warning that “many of the ‘cures’ and remedies now being recommended by neighbors, nostrum vendors, and others do more harm than good.” Many of his recommendations, like hand washing and avoiding crowds, stand up today, but he also instructed people to not wear tight clothes, tight shoes or tight gloves in order “to make nature your ally and not your prisoner.”

Unlike pandemic coverage in the 21st century, did not provide daily reports on the federal response. President Woodrow Wilson never made a statement on influenza, a point some researchers cite as a negligent response.

But “that’s frankly an unnuanced view of what the president would do back then,” Dr. Markel said. “One of the things that remained in the domain of the states and localities is public health. And there was no national public health effort at that time. There was no C.D.C.”

While The Times’s coverage included information about the disease in other cities, most of the reporting revolved around effects of the pandemic in New York and the response from local officials. Dr. Royal S. Copeland, the city’s health commissioner, took center stage.

Under Dr. Copeland, New York’s health department emphasized identification and isolation over closures, mitigating deaths where many other local governments failed. But there were setbacks, and his guidance was a point of contention. The paper reported a public spat between Dr. Copeland and a former health commissioner over the seriousness of the disease. A front-page article on Oct. 5 detailed closures in the city meant to diminish crowds in the subways, and a follow-up the next day reported chaos after a munition plant explosion in Sayreville, N.J., caused further transit disruptions.

“Forced to use the Brooklyn ferries, thousands of persons were caught in a mighty jam on both sides of the river and had to fight their way across,” The Times reported. “Thus was created an aggravation of the very condition that Health Commissioner Copeland sought to remedy.”

The Times also covered his hopes for a vaccine, which he argued was further along than the surgeon general would admit. Dr. Blue was right to show restraint; the science of the time was fundamentally flawed, and an effective vaccine was not developed during the pandemic.

As cases declined in November (they would spike again in the winter, but New York’s epidemic was over), The Times interviewed Dr. Copeland to reflect about lessons learned for the next time an epidemic struck. He attributed the city’s success to decisions that included keeping schools open while closing small, crowded entertainment venues. But he emphasized the importance of allowing life to go on when safely possible.

“I attempted to maintain the morale of New York City,” he said.

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