1918 Influenza Pandemic

Posted on: July 15th, 2020 by

The current CoVid-19 pandemic has brought many comparisons to the influenza pandemic of 1918.  A Wisconsin Magazine of History article from 2000 posted on WisCONTEXT (search 1918 at https://www.wiscontext.org) recounts the history of that time in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin was in a good position to ward off the effects of the 1918 influenza.  As in other areas, such as the Wisconsin Historical Society which was founded in 1846, Wisconsin was a leading state in public health.  The legislature created the State Board of Health on March 31, 1876.  In 1883 the state required that every town, city, and village establish a local board of health.  While not all had the expertise and experience needed, when the flu struck there were 1,685 local agents who could be a liaison with the state.

The so-called Spanish influenza began ravaging the world after a mild form that started in a military camp in Kansas followed the men sent to Europe and developed into a deadlier and more virulent strain.  It became known as the Spanish flu since Spain was neutral in the war and so was not censoring news of the pandemic.

The new strain was far more contagious, had a faster onset, and worse complications.  Some seemingly healthy people suddenly collapsed from the flu; some died in hours.  In addition, 20% of those infected, often who resumed activities too soon, developed pneumonia.  Half of those progressed to heliotrope cyanosis which filled the lungs with a black liquid often killing within 48 hours.  This flu was also different in that the hardest hit demographic was adults age 25-40, rather than the young and old.

Wisconsin residents had been watching the progress of the disease as it swept through the military and in states to the east and south.  By the end of September more than 1000 had died in Boston.  In early October hundreds of thousands in Philadelphia were sick or dying.  The incursion into Wisconsin seems to stem from two sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago who became ill while visiting Milwaukee in late September.  Within 10 days close to 300 cases were reported.  Madison had its first cases in early October with its first death on October 9.

Even before the pandemic hit full force, the State Health Officer, Dr. Cornelius Harper, called for a statewide educational campaign.  This included pamphlets urging those who were sick to stay home and for the public to avoid large gatherings such as theaters and mass meetings, and to not have public viewings for flu related deaths.

On October 10, 1918, the situation had deteriorated to the point that Dr. Harper issued an order to all boards of health “to immediately close all schools, theaters, moving picture houses, other places of amusement and public gatherings for an indefinite period of time.”  Although the US Surgeon General recommended that possibility, Wisconsin was the only state to follow it statewide and so comprehensively.  However, because of the wording, not all communities realized it was meant to be mandatory.

The Oconto Falls Farmer-Herald reported that the local board of health felt that closings were not necessary at that time since the flu was not present and there were only a couple of cases of scarlet fever and whooping cough.  It wasn’t long, though, before Oconto County realized the flu would affect them as well.  In the following weeks several articles in the paper showed the extent of what was happening.  General businesses seemed to not be affected by closures.

Oconto Falls

October 25: churches, schools, and theaters remain closed another week from scarlet fever

November 1: fewer cases were seen in the last week but more in the present week, so quarantine is extended

November 8: schools will remain closed, but gatherings are not affected

November 15: the quarantine is continued due to flu & scarlet fever

November 22: school to open November 25 after 5 weeks of being closed


November 28: City of Oconto order closing all schools, libraries, theaters, dance halls, and public gatherings, and restricting other activities

no lingering, loitering, card playing, pool or billiard playing in saloons, pool halls, or cigar stores

churches could meet but no singing, hand-shaking, or public funerals

December 23: Farnsworth Library reopened after 25 days of quarantine


December 13: Town of Morgan quarantine


The news from various communities in the county was peppered with people sick, recovering, or dying.  In total 81 deaths from Spanish influenza became the official count.  It’s hard to say, however, whether all cases could accurately be counted.  Some may have been reported as due to pneumonia rather than the flu.  The time period included was another factor.  One death was reported in 1920.  There were also some in the military who died while in service.

Concerns then were similar to those now, including the effects of closures and those taking care of the sick.

“This quarantine is possibly working some hardships, but it is not nearly so discomforting as would be deaths resulting from the epidemic…”

“Talk about heroes.  There is no one more of a hero than nurses and attendants in the hospitals, where they hug right up to the sick and work their level best to save lives, and at the same time take great risk to losing their own life.”

In 2000 Milwaukee station WISN had a news highlight about UW Oshkosh students studying the 1918 pandemic.  Helen Jelinske, formerly from Couillardville, was interviewed on her experience.

“Within two days you could have gotten the disease from someone else and died and you wouldn’t have had any notion of how sick you were even.  It was that frightening.”  91-year-old Helen Jelinske of Waukesha remembers it like it was yesterday.  “It felt as though everything inside of you was sort of exploding like there was so much internal pressure.”  Helen was just eight years old when the flu came to her home in rural Oconto County on Christmas Eve 1918.  “We were all sick but my mother was the sickest of all.  We thought my mother was going to die that night.”  Her mother pulled through but the family felt helpless.  “You didn’t have one single thing you could do for yourself.  We had no medicine we could take.  We had no knowledge of how we could deal with this terrible sickness.”