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The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Mark D. Smith; former Sarasota County Archivist
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 photo

This winter season has brought a new variety of influenza to the United States. There have been many warnings about this flu and some comparisons have been made to the great flu epidemic of 1918 that swept the world.

Did the 1918 flu have any effects in Sarasota? In 1918 Sarasota was part of Manatee County and had a population of about 2,500, with the majority of the population living in the city of Sarasota. Although Sarasota was very small in population compared to northern cities, it was not immune from this flu.
The 1918-19 influenza epidemic has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in the four years of the Black Death Bubonic Plaque from 1347 to 1351. It is estimated that 20 to 40 million people died worldwide. In the fall of 1918 and early 1919, it is estimated that 675,000 people died in the United States. Of the U.S. soldiers that died in Europe during World War I, half of them fell to influenza and not to the enemy.

Where the flu came from is not precisely known. It is thought to have originated in China and spread as people traveled. The first wave of the flu in the United States was at a military base in Kansas in the spring of 1918. However, the military did not respond to this first wave of the upcoming epidemic. Soldiers were sent to Europe and the flu subsided for the summer. As the U.S.’s involvement in the war escalated, the flu reappeared in September 1918 in a shipyard in Boston. By October 1918, almost 200,000 people nationwide had died from the flu.

In Sarasota County, health warnings began to appear in the Sarasota Times in October 1918. Health ads were printed with statements like “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases, as Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells.” Cases were being reported daily to Dr. Joseph Halton (pictured), Sarasota’s city physician and printed in the newspaper. On October 10, 1918, the Sarasota Times reported cases in the communities of Bee Ridge, Osprey, and Laurel.

Occasionally deaths from the flu were reported. On October 24, 1918, the Sarasota Times reported the death of the seven-month-old child of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Register who was recovering from the flu when a sudden relapse killed the child. Even the doctors were not immune. The Sarasota Times reported on the same day, “Dr. Cullen Wilson’s recovery is assured. The doctor attended to his patients until he was unable to keep up and his case was the serious one in town.”
State officials issued guidelines on how to handle the flu and how to prevent it. These included instructions to householders taking care of loved ones and workers going to and from work. Most of these guidelines recommended burning clothes, washing and not sharing towels. Overall they basically said to stay away from anyone who is sick.

By November 1918, the flu began to run its course and few cases were being reported. This was true nationwide as the case numbers were falling. As mysterious as the influenza  came, it left the same way, leaving its mark on Sarasota.