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Spanish Flu: Old Newspapers Offer Insight into Modern Pandemic

Spanish Flu: Old Newspapers Offer Insight into Modern Pandemic

May 6, 2020

The first cases of the Spanish Flu were found in Haskell County, Kansas, in January 1918. This pandemic was estimated to have killed between 17 million and 50 million people worldwide. While researching the Spanish Flu using MCPL’s Library Edition, I came across this article from the Danville Morning News, a newspaper based in Danville, Pennsylvania, from October 8, 1918:

“People are very anxious to know to what extent the Spanish Flu has gained a foothold in our country. The same question is asked a dozen times daily. There seems to be no satisfactory answer. The disease is not a reportable one and consequently does not figure on the records. It does not seem probable, however, that there is a large number of cases. Altogether, there may be less than 25 cases in the county. As the result of such quarantine measures as have been adopted, the spread of the disease should be arrested before long. It is perfectly thinkable, therefore, that in Montour County, Spanish Flu may not gain much of a foothold.

“All are hoping for the best. The closing order, sweeping as it is, is being obeyed to the letter. It is especially hard on the schools—on the pupils, who will lose ground rapidly while the schools are closed, as well as the teachers, who will feel the effects of the forced idleness. Of the teachers employed yesterday, a few were already looking around for temporary employment as there is absolutely no telling when the schools may be reopened. Unless the epidemic spreads very rapidly in Danville, however, it would seem reasonable to suppose that ‘in a couple of weeks’ time the schools may be permitted to reopen.”

Sound familiar? I guess they didn’t do much homeschooling back then! Isn’t it interesting that people had the same concerns we have today? How many cases are there? Will it come to us, and if so, when? When will the quarantine be over? Will we run out of toilet paper?

From the Kansas City Star, April 1919:

“The Flu Moves in Waves: London Scientists Expect New Attack in April—The disease first appeared in Great Britain in July last year then subsided, but has reappeared twice. London, March 24, Scientists who are observing the operations of Spanish influenza, say that, so far as the British Isles are concerned, it moves in waves. The country is just recovering from the third wave within a year. The disease first made its appearance here last July and began to subside toward the end of August. Eight weeks later, in October, it reappeared and by the middle of November had apparently run its course.”

From the Kansas City Star, January 30, 1920:

“Has Serum to Cure Flu: French Physician Tried It on Himself First—Sleeping sickness and Spanish Malady now sweeping the world are twins and curable by same remedy, Dr. Folley says. Paris, January 30—The sleeping sickness and the Spanish Influenza are twin diseases and an ordinary anti-Plague serum with which he has been experimenting is the surest remedy for both, Dr. Charles Folley, famous French physician said today. This surgeon declared there are 25 million cases of the ‘flu’ annually, which number has been increased to 30 million this year because of the worldwide reoccurrence of the epidemic.”

The article goes on to quote the doctor as claiming that he didn’t invent the treatment, but by employing it, saved thousands of lives. Spoiler alert: He did not actually cure the Spanish Flu.

What was being reported later in the epidemic?

From the Monrovia Daily News, Monrovia, California, November 26, 1920:

“Can’t Catch the Real Flu Twice—If you had the real Spanish Flu back in 1918 and 1919, and didn’t die of it, you won’t have it again. You can start in the winter with a perfectly light heart and no worry whatself in the event of fresh attack—now that the time-honored whiskey and quinine cure is no longer integrally available. This is the solemn and scientific assurance of Professor C. Dopter or the famous Val-de-Grace hospital at Paris. He has just published the full statistics and reports of the hospital on the Spanish Flu epidemic since its original arrival in 1918 and which demonstrate conclusively that one attack of the disease establishes immunity.”

Whiskey and quinine? You could research Spanish Flu with many resources, but for a glimpse of life a century ago, you can’t do better than newspapers for anecdotal accounts! Our ancestors did not have the internet, and so relied on these primary sources for information. Can you imagine how different going through a pandemic would be without access to news all day long?

If you would like to read more fascinating accounts like these, MCPL has many newspaper resources for you. In addition to Library Edition, you can access the complete Kansas City Star archive (dating back to 1880), Historical Newspapers, Access NewspaperARCHIVE, Irish Newspaper Archives, and Times Digital Archive. Just have your Library card number ready to access these wonderful resources!

Our ancestors went through the same things we are going through now, and we can learn from their experiences!

Michelle C.
Information and Reader’s Services Department

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