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Influenza Pandemic of 1918

The front page of Ann Arbor’s Daily News Times on October 16, 1918, blasted readers with two headlines: the war abroad and the war at home. Allied forces were gaining ground in German-occupied Belgium. The end of World War I was near. The war at home was against a different kind of foe. An influenza outbreak, first identified in the spring of 1918, was sweeping across the nation. 

Newspaper headlines: "Huns being driven from Belgium" and "Public meetings banned by public health officer"
Front page of Ann Arbor's Daily Times News, October 16, 1918

The first reported cases appeared in Michigan in late September. By October 16, Ann Arbor’s public health officer had banned all public gatherings and closed theaters, dance halls, and churches. This preventative measure came two days before Michigan’s governor issued a similar order. It was a crucial step in the city’s battle against influenza.

The Influenza pandemic of 1918 was commonly known as the Spanish Flu. The virus was highly contagious and deadly, especially when it led to pneumonia. Over 50 million people died worldwide. Despite the name, its origin was unknown. As a neutral party in WWI, Spain’s media outlets did not face wartime censorship. Spain reported early and often about the pandemic, leading many to believe Spain was the origin of the virus. In the U.S., the first cases appeared at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 11, 1918. The movements of soldiers throughout the U.S. and Europe heightened the spread of the disease. Army bases were particularly vulnerable to outbreaks.

Crisis on Campus

The first wave of the virus in the spring of 1918 was relatively mild, but a second wave hit the U.S. very hard in early fall. Michigan saw its first cases in late September. On September 30, Michigan’s Camp Custer reported a sudden outbreak of 557 cases and initiated a quarantine. The number escalated over the next two months to 10,000 cases, or a quarter of its personnel. 

Nurses standing in a line outside
Red Cross Nurses, Camp Custer, 1918. (Courtesy of Willard Library)

The Students’ Army Training Corps (S. A. T. C.) at the University of Michigan faced a similar crisis. On October 5, Colonel Victor C. Vaughan, chief medical officer of the S. A. T. C., reported “a number of cases.” Within three days, 171 S. A. T. C. personnel and 20 civilian students had been hospitalized. 

The situation on campus was becoming serious. Many nurses had gone to Camp Custer a week earlier to help fight the outbreak there. The State Street S. A. T. C. Infirmary, St. Joseph’s Sanitarium, and the University Hospital were nearing capacity. A Daily Times News journalist reported on October 8 that much of central campus was under quarantine with armed guards. “Within that space no civilian enters, except the medic who must needs get to the medical building.”

By October 12 there were 225 cases of influenza among S. A. T. C. personnel. Despite preventative measures, at least 182 additional cases appeared in Ann Arbor. Barbour Gymnasium was converted into a temporary infirmary. Barbour was the women’s gym, built in 1895-96 on the north side of Waterman Gymnasium. Army men with light cases of influenza moved there. The change of scenery and volunteer-cooked food helped many recover.

Schools Closed for Two Weeks

Even as conditions began to improve on campus, the situation in town was getting worse. All eyes were on Ann Arbor’s public health officer John A. Wessinger. Dr. Wessinger had decades of experience battling smallpox and typhoid outbreaks in the region. He started in private practice in his hometown of Howell before moving to Ann Arbor in 1891. As public health officer, he led many forward-thinking initiatives including the city’s first health survey in 1916.

On October 16, Dr. Wessinger forbade all indoor gatherings. Churches, bars, and theaters such as the Majestic closed their doors. Schools quickly followed suit. The order came two days before Michigan’s governor issued a similar state-wide order. For two weeks, the city held its breath and waited.

Newspaper clipping announcing closure of all public gathering places by City Health Officer
Daily Times News, Oct. 16, 1918
Ad by the Majestic Theatre announcing closure
Daily Times News, Oct. 17, 1918

Meanwhile, Dr. Wessinger provided other public health guidance. While he did not require the public to wear masks, he urged business owners and their employees to wear them. He also advised citizens to wear masks when out in public. He offered these tips: “One yard of gauze will make eight masks, each 9x9 inches, three layers thick, loop at each end to hook over the ears. Boil and dry the mask over night, each day.”

By October 18, the Washtenaw County school commissioner reported that many schools had closed. Several teachers were ill and unable to lead classes. The Board of County Supervisors officially closed schools for at least one week. A week stretched into two. Older students began helping with apple and potato picking on nearby farms. Sports practices and games were cancelled for the duration of the closure.

The Ann Arbor Daily Times News kept citizens up to date on influenza cases reported in the city. By October 24, the death toll in Ann Arbor had climbed to 66. It would continue to rise to over 100 by the end of the year. But as the rate of new cases declined, the city made small steps toward reopening.

End of War, End of Pandemic

By early November, Dr. Wessinger reported fewer new influenza cases per day. Ann Arbor public schools re-opened on Monday, November 4. Barbour Gymnasium opened. Dr. Wessinger predicted that public gatherings could begin again the next weekend. He ordered fumigation of churches, theaters, and other gathering places.

Exterior of the Majestic Theatre
Exterior of the Majestic Theater, 1930 (Courtesy of the Washtenaw County Historical Society)
Parade of horse-drawn carriages with red cross symbols
WWI Red Cross parade, May 1918 (Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library)

But Ann Arbor’s reopening had more fanfare than anyone predicted. On the afternoon of November 7, news of a peace treaty arrived via the United Press. The Michigan Daily published an extra announcing Germany’s surrender. The University cancelled classes. Students and residents gathered in an impromptu parade down State Street to celebrate the end of the first World War! It was the biggest public gathering in weeks.

Unfortunately, the United Press had made a mistake. A U.S. naval commander in France misinterpreted news of a local ceasefire. The United Press ran with it, cabling newspaper offices throughout the country. Other newspapers like Ann Arbor’s Daily Times News waited for confirmation from U.S. government officials, who denied it. The Times News published a scathing critique of The Michigan Daily, calling it “the greatest news hoax of all time.” 

Despite the premature celebration, Ann Arbor’s reopening continued on schedule. The Michigan Patriotic fundraiser took place in Hill Auditorium the next day. Citizens recognized the continuing sacrifices of soldiers overseas. Dr. Wessinger lifted the ban on public gatherings to encourage donations. Theaters reopened on November 9. Say, Young Fellow played at the Majestic. 

Finally, on November 11 the much-anticipated armistice was declared in Europe. World War I was over! Ann Arbor’s residents celebrated enthusiastically. They set their sights on winning the “war at home” against the deadly influenza pandemic.

Laying the Foundation for a Healthy City 

Photo portrait of John Wessinger
Dr. John A. Wessinger, 1901

Over the next month, influenza cases declined. Public health measures helped reduce transmission of the virus. The Michigan State Board of Health sent orders to quarantine people with influenza. There were similar protocols for typhoid cases. On December 13, public signs warned of a $100 fine and 90 days in prison for breaking quarantine. All hospital workers and attendants continued to wear face masks. Dr. Wessinger’s team inspected hotels and restaurants to ensure sanitary conditions. 

By January 1919, the Daily Times News was optimistic. The pandemic’s grip on Ann Arbor had lifted. The News reported that despite the flu, the number of births had still outnumbered the number of deaths in 1918. According to the University of Michigan’s records, the final death toll in Ann Arbor due to the pandemic came to 117. Among those were 57 members of the S. A. T. C., two student nurses, and 58 citizens.

Early 20th-century public health experts faced almost yearly outbreaks of infectious diseases. Typhoid and smallpox were particularly prevalent. The global deadliness of the 1918 influenza pandemic 1918 increased exponentially as a result of the movements of World War I soldiers. But Ann Arbor prevented catastrophic spread among its citizens by following the advice of public health experts. A leader in calm times as well as crisis, Dr. Wessinger helped lay the foundation for a healthy city for years to come.