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Fettuccine Forum to Focus on the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918

By: Anna Webb   Published 12:28 pm / March 6, 2018

Spanish influenza preparation, 1918

St. Louis, Missouri, Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Library of Congress photo collection.

The Spanish flu was a pandemic that circled the globe 100 years ago. It may have killed as many as 100 million people — more than 2,300 of them in Idaho at a time when the state had fewer than half a million residents.

Bob Reinhardt, an assistant professor of history, and Ginger Floerchinger-Franks, a writer who spent decades working in public health in Idaho, will present “Public Health and the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic in Boise and Beyond” as part of the city’s Fettuccine Forum public lecture program. The talk will be at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 8, at Boise City Hall. It is free and open to the public.

Photo of Seattle during the pandemic of 1918

Precautions taken in Seattle, Washington, during the pandemic in 1918. No one could ride the street car without a mask. The Seattle Red Cross made 260,000 masks in three days — with only 120 workers. Library of Congress photo.

Despite the passage of time, the Spanish flu, a uniquely virulent strain, remains intriguing. Its name is a misnomer. The flu didn’t originate in Spain. But Spain was neutral during World War I, thus not subject to news censorship that affected countries involved in the conflict. Spain reported on the flu and the name stuck. The virus acquired other names as well, including “the blue death” for the way it caused victims’ lungs to fill with fluid and caused their skin to discolor. Flu stories are rife with other haunting imagery — photographs of stark hospital wards, emergency crews wearing white cotton masks, and funeral homes running out of space because of the number of flu deaths. The flu killed quickly — sometimes overnight. It was particularly deadly for otherwise healthy young women and men. The flu left behind tangible markers. If you walk through older cemeteries like Boise’s Morris Hill, you’ll find a notable number of gravestones etched with the death year 1918.

Reinhardt and Floerchinger-Franks will talk about the state of Idaho’s public health system as the influenza outbreak hit communities, unprepared on the heels of World War I.

“Spanish flu is a story of humans vs. disease. It’s a great drama,” said Reinhardt. “But it’s simultaneously revealing about how human society is organized.”

Thursday’s program, he said, will include a look at larger societal questions, including how one’s socioeconomic status mattered when it came to flu mortality and how public health authorities dealt with different populations.

Floerchinger-Franks and Reinhardt will discuss what the Spanish flu era can still teach communities about diseases, about our responses and preparedness. Their talk comes at a time when the Centers for Disease Control plans to cut 80 percent of its epidemic prevention activities overseas because of a lack of funding.

Reinhardt’s areas of study include the history of public health, the environment, and the the American West. He has focused on smallpox — another worldwide plague. His publications include “The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era.” Floerchinger-Franks is writing a book on the evolution of public health in Idaho, and includes copious research on the Spanish flu era.

New Haven hospital in 1918.

A hospital in New Haven, Connecticut during the influenza outbreak of 1918. Beds are isolated by curtains. Library of Congress photo.

For Further Study:

  • Ana Kurland from Access Services at Albertsons Library has created a guide for exploring the Spanish flu at its centennial mark. The guide, available online at guides.boisestate.edu, includes videos, a reader’s guide to books about the outbreak, links to articles and much more.
  • History professor Todd Shallat wrote about the Spanish flu for The Blue Review, “Boise’s Forgotten Pandemic.
  • The Library of Congress online photo collection includes a number of photographs (now in the public domain), taken during the Spanish flu outbreak. Among the photos: the portrait (below) of Elizabeth McWilliams, a young woman who became a nurse’s aid for the Red Cross. The note that accompanies her photograph reads: “Elizabeth McWilliams of Summerville, N.J. She sailed from New York in October as a Red Cross nurse’s aid and died of pneumonia just as the ship reached the British port. She is buried not far from Red Cross Headquarters in London. There was an outbreak of influenza on the ship in which Miss McWilliams sailed. She worked hard all the first day scrubbing out the influenza-infected baggage room to provide a temporary hospital. That night she worked as an emergency cook for three hours and then until midnight wrote letters for the influenza patients. Next morning she was herself stricken. Her last words were “I am happy because I’ve tried to be a real American. Miss Alice Fleenor of San Francisco who was one of her closest friends on board ship, writes: “We who knew her, know how much of inspiration we derived from her unselfish sacrifice and devotion. Two hundred Red Cross people started their service in Europe with a new reverence, a new resolve to carry higher the spirit of the RC in memory of the young girl who served for one day as a real American.”

Elizabeth McWilliams, flu victim

Elizabeth McWilliams, victim of the Spanish flu.