How the pandemic of a century ago affected Central Ohio

During the coronavirus crisis, a lot of references have been made to the Spanish influenza at the end of World War I. How bad was the outbreak in Columbus?
First, that scary pandemic did not necessarily come from Spain. People concluded it did because, while countries fighting in the war controlled the media, the censor-free Spanish were the first to report the disease.

Worldwide, it was an awful thing. About 40 percent of the global population was infected, and 50 million people died. Of those, 500,000 were in the United States, accounting for 1 percent of worldwide fatalities.

As frightening as all this was, Columbus came out of it pretty well, despite some misplaced optimism on the part of the city’s chief health officer. On Oct. 3, 1918, a week after the flu showed up in Columbus, Dr. Louis Kahn made an announcement: “There is no need to worry as far as Columbus is concerned. The epidemic appears to be at its peak, and we can look for a lessening of the number of cases within a few days.”

Even though eastern cities were inundated with flu cases, Kahn said this was “the grippe,” a familiar annual respiratory illness. Well, no. Across the country, infections rose rapidly from mid-September 1918 and were pretty well gone by early March 1919, with two peaks in early November and mid-December. It hit large groups especially hard. For example, north of Chillicothe, Camp Sherman housed 42,000 World War I soldiers. There, 5,686 got the flu and 1,777 died—a rate of 4,230 per 100,000 people (4.23 percent). The toll in Columbus? It was 312 per 100,000, a total of 817 deaths—a 0.31 percent death rate. (Another study estimated the death count at about 1,000 in Columbus.) Among Ohio large cities, only Toledo had fewer deaths.

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Is Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center named for a real military fort?
It’s not only named for a real installation, it occupies some original military buildings, including the arsenal built in 1865 to store arms and ammunition. Long known mistakenly as the Shot Tower (it never was used to make bullets), today it houses classrooms, an art gallery and offices, and is the school’s centerpiece.

In 1861, the state of Ohio purchased 77 acres from Neil House Hotel owner Robert Neil (donor of the land for Ohio State) and in 1863 donated the property to the federal government. The United States Arsenal, later called the Columbus Barracks, eventually had more than 70 buildings.

It was renamed Fort Hayes in 1922 to honor Rutherford B. Hayes, the Ohio-born 19th U.S. president. Columbus had a central location with numerous railroad lines, and the arsenal was a stop in the fall of 1863 for a massive rail-borne troop movement that rescued Gen. William Rosecrans (also from Ohio) and the Army of the Cumberland, which was surrounded by Confederate troops in Chattanooga. Until the last military units left around 2009, Fort Hayes was Ohio’s oldest military base in continuous use.

Sources: Influenza Encyclopedia at the University of Michigan (influenzaarchive.org); columbusmonthly.com; history.com; ohiohistorycentral.org; leatherneck.com; “Architecture: Columbus”; Columbus Metropolitan Library online collection

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Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column.