By Dave Miller & Erica S. Maniez

Originally published in 2005, updated for 2020.

In 2005, scientists and epidemiologists were worried about a strain of avian flu labeled H5N1; currently, of course we are worried about another virus, COVID-19. The concern around H5N1 in 2005 led us to write the following story about the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. 

Each year, 30-60 million Americans catch some variety of the flu. About 36,000 die from it, mostly the elderly. The flu is spread by tiny droplets (a sneeze or cough will do) and mutates so fast that no one ever becomes fully immune. Each year a new flu vaccine has to be made.

The current [2005] worry is a strain of avian flu labeled H5N1. It has made the jump from bird (or animal) to human a relatively small number of times, but when it has, it has killed half of all who’ve caught it. The good news is that it’s not easily transmittable from one person to another. But health researchers and medical personnel are on guard. The worst scenarios envision H5N1 killing up to 360 million people. [As of 2019, global deaths due to H5N1 totaled 455, with a total case number of 861].

The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919

Experts fear another pandemic like the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919. Scientists speculate that everybody on earth breathed in that virus. It has been determined that the 1918 epidemic was caused by the H1N1 variant of the flu. According to the CDC, “It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.” 

Although the epidemic in question has been frequently called the “Spanish Flu,” no one believes the flu began in Spain. It was first reported there only because, as a neutral country during World War I, Spain endured no wartime censorship. By the time the flu was reported in Spain, it had already decimated whole divisions along the western front in the spring and early summer of 1918. Then it seemed to subside, only to return again in late summer. Returning soldiers brought it home to their native countries, including the United States. The symptoms were fever, piercing headache, and joint pain. About 5 percent of victims died, some in just two or three days. Without antibiotics to treat secondary infections, the only available treatments were isolation and rest.

The Flu in Issaquah

Here in Issaquah, there never was a page one news story about the impact of the flu in 1918 or 1919. However, there were numerous accounts of community members suffering from the flu or pneumonia, or listed on the “sick list.” Issaquah Press coverage didn’t always provide clear reports as to who was infected with or died from the flu. Victims often recovered from the flu itself, but developed and died of pneumonia, a common complication of the flu. In tallying those who fell ill and died, our statistics are also skewed by the fact that some issues of the Issaquah Press from this time period are missing. Even allowing for these margins of error, we can document more than 100 cases of the flu in the community during the epidemic.

Pete Erickson may have been the first Issaquah resident to succumb to the flu, although he died thousands of miles from home. Erickson was serving in WWI when he died of pneumonia on August 10, 1918,  somewhere in France. As the soldiers of WWI were the flu’s first victims, and given the frequency with which pneumonia developed, it would not be surprising to learn that Erickson’s was actually a flu death.

The first outbreak of influenza in Washington state occurred on October 3, 1918 at the University of Washington Naval Training Station. More than 700 cases were reported. One of these cases was Walter H. Day, age 18, who was born and raised in Issaquah. He had joined the Naval Reserve weeks earlier, on September 1. He died of pneumonia on October 15 at  Providence Hospital in Seattle. 

Influenza in Issaquah

Jake Schomber, another Issaquah native, was serving in the U.S. Army, stationed in Camp Fremont in California. His sweetheart Minnie Wilson wrote to him on October 6, 1918 that “They have 53 cases [of influenza] in Snoqualmie, so I guess we will have an epidemic here next.“ In her letters to Jake, Minnie noted four cases of the flu in Issaquah during the first week of October. 

On October 18, the Issaquah Press noted that, soldiers from Camp Lewis were forbidden from visiting Seattle as a precautionary measure, indicating that public health officials had targeted returning soldiers as a likely source of the outbreak. A similar quarantine was in place at military camps all over the country. This was not welcome news for Minnie and Jake; Minnie had planned an October visit to Camp Fremont to see Jake before he was sent to Europe. Their visit had to be cancelled. 

Doc Gibson’s Advice

Although there are many accounts in The Issaquah Press about the flu in other parts of the state, there is little coverage specific to Issaquah. Local physician Dr. Gibson made two public comments about the epidemic From the November 1, 1918, issue: “Dr. W. E. Gibson reports about 15 cases of influenza in Issaquah. In this community, so far, there have been no complications, such as pneumonia, and the doctor believes this is due to the people being acclimatized to this ‘climate.’  It is his opinion that if a census was taken of the deaths in Seattle, a large proportion would be found to be arrivals within a year from the Eastern states. In Dr. Gibson’s opinion, the best preventive [sic] against infection is a cheerful mind, care being taken to keep the body well nourished and warmly clad.”

His advice is sound, insofar as good nutrition and avoiding chills contribute to a strong immune system. Gibson’s assertion also hints at the prevailing theory about illness in the late 19th Century: that illness was the result of an imbalance often caused by an environment unfriendly to one’s humors. His advice is missing the critical cornerstone of hand-washing, which suggests that Dr. Gibson may not have been totally versed in germ theory.

In January of 1919, the Press again quoted Dr. Gibson, who reported that he had no new flu cases in recent days and that, “the recent heavy rains seem to have cleared away some of the influenza germs.” Although the influenza of that time 

Another indication of public attitude towards preventive measures in 1918 was the following ad in the October 18, 1918, issue of The Issaquah Press:

For the Spanish Influenza, take Nyal Laxacold Tablets

Use “Boraseptine” to Keep the Germs Away

Mansfield Drug Co., Inc.

Minnie Wilson stated in a letter to her fiancé that she intended to eat lots of garlic and onions to keep the germs at bay (and commented that it was a good thing Jake would not be around to smell her breath).

Attacking the Flu

In the November 1, 1918, issue of the Press, Dr. T.D. Tuttle, the state health commissioner decried that everyone in Seattle entering a store, street car, or elevator should be wearing a mask. Those without masks could not board Seattle’s street cars.

The main point of attack against the flu was to prevent people from congregating with one another. Mayor Ole Hanson of Seattle announced early in 1919 that “all people who are not working at essential labor must remain at home. Crowds will not be tolerated.” In areas around the state, schools, churches, and other gathering places were closed.

School Days

Issaquah was no exception to the widespread closures and quarantine. The following item was posted in the Press issue of October 18, 1918: “The Issaquah School will be opened just as soon as the County Board of Health authorizes this step to be taken. The local directors have no option whatever in the matter.” State education officials later stated that an average of 25 school days were lost during the epidemic.

Most local schools reopened after the first of the year (although the school in Monohon opened on November 29, 1918 after seven weeks of flu closure). Even after reopening, the epidemic continued to affect normal activities and operations. Basketball games and debates, for example, were cancelled for the remainder of the year to prevent further spreading of the flu. By January 24, a number of students were still absent from school, but student journalists noted that attendance had greatly improved during the last week. Several Issaquah students stricken early in the epidemic withdrew completely, presumably because they had missed too much to make up.

The Flu in 1919

As 1918 became 1919, parts of Washington were still under the thumb of the flu. Here in Issaquah, sick list and flu mentions in the Issaquah Press indicate that nearly twice as many people suffered from the flu in January 1919 as during the previous months of the epidemic. The Issaquah Press noted on January 2, 1919 that “Monohon has begun to have a siege of flu.” In this issue, newspaper editors began to name entire families of those stricken with the flu; it was not uncommon for the illness to strike several family members at once, or to work its way through a household a few members at a time.

Nevertheless, in early February the town council lifted their ban on public gatherings. Apparently the ban on gatherings in Seattle had also ended by February 21, as this issue of The Issaquah Press reported that “Quite a few of the Issaquah young people attended the military ball held in Seattle Wednesday evening.” There were a few more reports of illnesses in February, but there were no reports of deaths and the word “flu” was not mentioned. 

Coverage of the flu by The Issaquah Press slowly petered out. There was no article proclaiming the flu epidemic over. As far as news coverage went, the flu simply stole quietly out of Washington in the spring of 1919, having stolen numerous lives and the normal routine of daily life. 

Authors’ Note: Information about the Spanish Flu outside the Issaquah area, and information about the current [2005] strain of “bird flu”, is summarized from “Tracking the Next Killer Flu,” by Tim Appenzeller, October 2005 National Geographic. Information on local effects of the epidemic comes from The Issaquah Press, and the Minnie Wilson Collection at the IHM.

Where else can you read about local effects of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919?

Before coronavirus, Seattle was under siege by the deadliest flu in history. Here’s what life was like. By Elizabeth Wiese, USA Today, March 7, 2020.

Before coronavirus: How Seattle handled the Spanish flu. By Knute Berger, Crosscut, March 4, 2020.

Flu in Washington: The 1918 “Spanish Flu” Pandemic. By John Caldbick, HistoryLink.org, Posted 3/23/2017