More than a century before COVID-19, the deadliest outbreak in recorded history killed more than 1,000 Columbus residents. “Should a true virus again appear that behaved as in 1918, even taking into account the advances in medicine since, unparalleled tolls of illness and death would be expected.”

Editor’s note: In his daily coronavirus press briefings, Gov. Mike DeWine often mentions the influenza outbreak of 1918, which is informing his aggressive actions to control the spread of today’s outbreak. In 1999, Columbus Monthly published this piece about the first pandemic’s impact on Columbus.

It is not surprising that the problem sneaked up on the city health commissioner, Dr. Louis Kahn. Like that of the rest of Columbus and the nation, his attention was riveted on Europe, where the First World War slowly was coming to a close. American and Allied troops had the Kaiser and the German army on the run all along the line—in Flanders, Champagne and the Argonne region. After more than four bloody years of stalemate, it now appeared only a matter of time before the enemy capitulated. In fact, the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, was just a little over a month away.

Yet early disquieting reports of sickness in Army camps across the nation had proven all too true. Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, where many Columbus recruits were training, already had experienced 139 influenza deaths by early October. And civilian populations were not immune. The impact in major cities in the East, especially Boston and Philadelphia, was alarming. Philadelphia had seen some 900 deaths from influenza in the first week of October. 

Influenza in the early 20th century was a common illness as it is today. But the 1918 version was a new strain, dubbed the Spanish Influenza, whose origins are uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the outbreak would become the deadliest in recorded history. Columbus, like much of the rest of the world, was in for a rude awakening.

Still, Kahn seemingly felt little cause for alarm. As late as Oct. 4, he assured the readers of the Columbus Evening Dispatch that all was OK. “There is no need to worry so far as Columbus is concerned," Kahn told the paper. “The epidemic appears to be at its peak and we can look for lessening of the number of cases within a few days." While there was no known preventive, Kahn advised that "good care of the body and organs, plain food, fresh air and lots of exercise will help throw off the attacks of this disease. A lowered vitality invites it.”

Echoing Kahn's optimism, the commanding officer at Camp Sherman, Colonel T.R. Rivers, advised Gov. James Cox  that the situation there "had taken a decided turn for the better,” as the Dispatch reported.

One can only wonder what the health commissioner was thinking. Perhaps his comments were designed to calm the populace and prevent panic. In light of his subsequent actions and statements, however, it is more likely that he genuinely felt no risk. If so, his attitude would soon change. 

By the end of the week, Kahn and Rivers may have regretted their words. That very day, Dr. Harry Myers reported that a 37-year-old mother, Mrs. John Buntz of 517 Linwood Ave., had died of influenza after an illness of just a few days. It was the first officially recorded death from the disease in the city. One day later, John Albert Zimmerman, 22, of Lorain Avenue died at Camp Sherman from pneumonia, a typical complication of the disease, leaving behind a wife and 4-week-old son. 

Within the week, other Columbus families would be faced with the grim reality of a loved one's death—Fred Davis of 151 Chittenden Ave., Harry Heifner of 554 Edwards St., Clarence Fromm of 2511 Deming Ave., Charles Rosser of 1282 Mooberry St. and Aurora Parry of 344 E. State St. Irene McCullough, secretary at the YMCA, died after a two-day illness—after washing her hair, the paper reported, she caught a cold, which turned into the flu. 

Overnight, Camp Sherman saw 104 deaths. The bodies were stacking up so fast there that Columbus undertakers were called to assist in the embalming. On Oct.7 the Columbus Chapter of the Red Cross received orders to make 5,000 masks for Ohio Army camps. 

Still, the Columbus community seemed lulled into a false sense of security. On Oct.8, Columbus Public Schools superintendent C.H. Fullington decided to keep the schools open. School physician C.P. Linhart told a board meeting that, "There is no safer place in town than the schoolroom." He further demonstrated his naiveté by remarking that homesickness partially explained the high incidence in Army camps. "Nostalgia has a tendency to lower vitality," he said, “and while in this condition the men are more susceptible to illness." 

The next day, however, in the face of increasing evidence—by now there were between 15,000 and 20,000 cases statewide—Kahn urged citizens to avoid public gatherings, placing a ban on public funerals. Quick action by the state prohibited open caskets altogether. The following day Kahn thought it prudent to close movie theaters. By the 11th, the state went further, announcing that beginning Oct. 12 all places of public gathering would be closed, including theaters, schools, colleges, churches and indoor meetings. Saloons, cigar stores, soda fountains and poolrooms were exempt. One week later, Kahn, no longer able to dispute that he had a crisis on his hands, extended the ban in Columbus, leaving saloons the last bastion of relaxation. By then, Camp Sherman deaths totaled 821. 

On Saturday, Oct. 12, Adam Gramlich of Grove City suffered through a double funeral at Green Lawn cemetery. Both his wife, Annie, and son George had died that week. 

Ever the optimist, Kahn next inexplicably announced that the influenza epidemic was apparently on the wane in Columbus, with only 418 civilian cases reported so far and daily incidences of new cases decreasing. Looking at the normal death rate for the city per 100,000 residents, that conclusion may have made sense on the surface. Influenza had raised the rate from 15 to only 16.4. 

Alfred W. Crosby, in his book, “America's Forgotten Epidemic,” theorizes why the nation's medical community was caught off guard. "The abruptness of the onset of the disease and the degree to which it overwhelmed the patient … seemed too extreme to be caused by influenza. Flu, gripe, grip—whatever you called it or however you spelled it—was a homey, familiar kind of illness. Two or three days in bed feeling downright miserable, a week or so feeling shaky, then back to normal." 

In effect, the health commissioner's conclusion was wrong because he had never seen anything like the disease before. Yes, it was the flu, but unlike any he had yet experienced. Among that day's dead was Mrs. Mercedes Minnix of 20 Hawkes Ave. 

Drug companies began to take advantage of an increasingly concerned public. One advertisement in the Dispatch, noting that the disease, already in several Eastern and Southern states, “will no doubt spread rapidly," urged readers to buy the preventive Nostriola balm, liquid or atomizer. The A.J. Hull Medicine Company of Findlay, Ohio, advertised its Hull's Superlative, a root and bark remedy, at $1 per bottle—20 drops every two hours would relieve flu symptoms—and Golden Seal, the "greatest known vegetable antiseptic." 

Events were canceled all over the city, including that year's Discovery Day parade, the regular Wednesday night lodge meeting of the Columbus Elks and an Ohio State University Alumnae Club luncheon at the Chittenden Hotel. 

The Federation of Women's Clubs called for donations of supplies to relieve Camp Sherman. One shipment included 714 blankets, 620 comforters, 30 towels, 77 sheets, 62 pillowcases and 74 feather pillows. Calls from the Red Cross for medical care assistance prompted the Patriotic League to sponsor an intensive course in nursing at Grant Hospital to interested women and girls.

By mid month, 560 cases of influenza had been reported to city health officials. New deaths included Frank Cox, 32, of 107 E. Main St, and Bert Woodcox, 33, of 319 Jefferson Ave. Their ages reflected an ominous characteristic of the disease. Unlike typical flu outbreaks, which preyed on infants and the elderly, the 1918 flu struck hardest at healthy young adults. It tended to settle in the lungs, resulting in pneumonia. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of the victims were between 20 and 40 years of age.  

Though not understood at the time, the disease was a virus. Simple preventive measures were largely ineffectual. Dr. Emery Hayhurst of OSU's department of public health and sanitation issued a public statement recommending repeated washing of the hands and encouraged residents to carry a handkerchief or gauze pad that could be clapped over the mouth quickly if anyone nearby sneezed, coughed or shouted. His other practical advice included drinking plenty of milk and getting an extra hour of sleep nightly. 

On Oct. 20, Columbus deaths topped 100. There were now more than 1,600 reported cases. The next day Mayor George Karb banned bargain sales by retail merchants and stationed police officers at all Downtown street corners to ensure that streetcars were not overly crowded. Street car operators were ordered to keep every window open. A $100 fine would be assessed for anyone violating any order of the city's health department. Political gatherings went by the wayside, as a planned Republican tent meeting and a Democratic rally at a public park were both canceled. Saloons, still allowed to do business, were required to keep doors and windows open.  

On the 22nd, the last remaining outdoor amusement, football, was banned. New Columbus deaths that day included 34-year-old Lola Pearl Van Voorhis of 919 Hunter Ave., 28-year-old Mattie Par sons of 789 W. Chapel St. and 35-year-old Eugene Barry of 1044 Madison Ave.  

The next day, Germany announced its intention to withdraw its troops from France and Belgium. But as one invasion ebbed, another picked up speed. By now the influenza epidemic had reached pandemic stage—it was worldwide. Kahn joined health officials across the nation in recommending vaccines. However, the science of microbiology was in its infancy. Unable to isolate the causal virus, doctors found vaccines to be useless. The first practical influenza vaccine would not be available for another quarter century. And penicillin, today an antibiotic commonly used to combat bacterial pneumonia, wouldn't be discovered for another decade. In fact, pathologists never did isolate this virus, though in 1951 they tried by exhuming and testing the bodies of Eskimos that had been preserved in the permafrost. 

During the last week of October, things finally took a turn for the better, as the death rate slowed. For Myrtle Perry of Lakewood Avenue, it was too late. She had lost her mother, her newborn baby, her 19-month-old son, Ira, and her husband, Lawrence, to the flu. 

Some area residents weren't happy with the way local government officials were handling the situation. One man objected in the Columbus Citizen to the freezing streetcars. Questioning whether it was wise to open all car windows, he wrote, “I was on the North Fourth streetcar. Before it reached 17th Avenue I was sneezing and sniveling. I believe we can get fresh air enough without inviting blizzards head-to. Then think of the tender babies and children." 

Frank Ayers, a used-furniture dealer, complained of being exposed unknowingly to the disease when conducting business. He urged the city to treat the epidemic similarly to other contagious diseases by placing a card as a warning on houses where residents were inflicted and to "enforce a strict quarantine." 

Others took a more positive tone. The Dispatch ran a full-page ad on the next-to-last day of the month under the banner headline, "The Flu Cannot Kill the Dynamic force of American Business.” It noted the lowest number of business failures in 19 years and encouraged early Christmas shopping. The newspaper also advised: “Now is not the time to stop advertising." 

State-imposed restrictions were lifted the last day of the month and local governments informed that they could exercise discretion in ending their own. Gradually, Columbus life returned to normal. Churches opened their doors on Nov. 3, and outdoor activities were permitted on the 9th.

On Nov. 12, 200,000 celebrants converged at Broad and High in Downtown to mark the armistice. The chance for revelry also was a welcome opportunity for a city under siege for the past month by an unseen enemy. The next day, OSU resumed classes. That weekend, its football team clobbered Case University 56-0 at Ohio Field. Though the disease would continue to leave its mark on the city for several more months, it already had spent most of its energy.  

According to state health department records, 14,986 deaths were attributed to influenza statewide in 1918. The previous year, the number had been just 959. Major A.N. Besnah, supply officer at Camp Chase, reported the cold, hard facts at that facility. Of the 5,850 cases there, 1,177, or 20 percent, proved fatal. Of the 2,001 cases that progressed to pneumonia, 43 percent resulted in death. During the most horrendous week, 694 soldiers died. Among camp fatalities were eight doctors and nurses who contracted pneumonia treating patients. 

Bụt compared to experiences elsewhere, Columbus fared well. Crosby's study of the epidemic in the United States attributes 1,004 Columbus deaths to influenza and pneumonia during the 23 week period beginning Oct. 12, 1918. Nationwide, fatalities topped 550,000, more deaths than in both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam combined. Worldwide, there were at least 20 million victims.

Medical science has come a long way since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Unfortunately, it could all happen again. According to the World Health Organization's Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan of April, 1999, “Should a true virus again appear that behaved as in 1918, even taking into account the advances in medicine since, unparalleled tolls of illness and death would be expected. Air travel could hasten the spread of a new virus, and decrease the time available for preparing interventions, health care systems could be rapidly overburdened, economies strained, and social order disrupted.”

This story originally appeared in the November 1999 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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