101 years ago: When the Spanish flu ravaged Detroit

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Michigan hasn't dealt with a pandemic in more than a century. Now, history repeats itself as Michiganians must constantly wash hands, avoid close contact with others and remain indoors amid COVID-19.

Cases of the novel coronavirus continue to rise in Michigan, and there is an eerie similarity with how the city of Detroit handled its last major outbreak. 

In this 1918 photo made available by the Library of Congress, volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tend to influenza patients in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, used as a temporary hospital.

In 1918, Michigan was hit with the Spanish flu pandemic, which lasted from January 1918 to December 1920. In Detroit, more than 1,500 residents died from its affects and over 18,000 cases were reported, The Detroit News reported.

Also referred to as “the 1918 flu pandemic” or “the grip,” the virus was first detected in Michigan around Sept. 20, 1918, just months before the end of World War I, at the U.S. Naval Training Station at Ford Motor Co.’s River Rouge Plant and Shipyard in Dearborn.

Symptoms were discovered among five sailors, and just a couple days later the number of people showing signs of the deadly virus had risen to 107.

Detroiters had been warned on Sept. 18 by Health Commissioner Dr. James Woffendale Inches that the influenza may soon reach the city's downtown area.

"Cases of the virulent type of influenza are increasing rapidly in the city, according to Dr. Inches, who is considering closing the theaters as a precautionary measure against the spreading of the disease," The Detroit News said in a report in October 1918.

"On Sept. 22, the Spanish flu made its first appearance in Detroit as reports from Eastern points showed the malady virtually unchecked," The Detroit News reported. Nineteen people died in Boston and five in Newport, R.I. Two officers and 16 privates were victims at Camp Davens, Mass.

Nearly 2,000 sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station were infected and the disease appeared in the Army training unit at Lewis Technical Institute in Chicago.

Roughly two weeks later, Detroit's first case of the virus was reported by the attending physician of the Department of Health, and the first death took place the first week of October. On Oct. 2, four Michigan soldiers died from Spanish flu.

To avoid the flu's spread, many of the same precautions being implemented today were put in place back then. Among them was the closing of non-essential businesses and places where large groups gathered.

"The only way to stop the spread of Spanish influenza is to close churches, schools, theaters and public institutions in every community where the epidemic has developed," said U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue.

Residents were also encouraged to practice good hygiene, such as thoroughly washing hands after being out in public, using disinfectants to clean common areas, quarantining when thought necessary, and to self-isolate.

In this Oct. 19, 1918 photo provide by the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command a sign is posted at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia that indicates, the Spanish Influenza was then extremely active.

And, like today, people were often seen wearing surgical masks to help protect them from droplets in the air that spread the virus. But with COVID-19, social-distancing of at least six feet is being suggested as another form of protection.

Detroiters were ordered to stop sweeping dust into the streets and spitting on the ground to prevent the flu's spread. 

"(The commissioner) of the Department of Public Works complained that many stores sweep dust from the floors into the street," The Detroit News reported.

"I have ordered that hereafter such dust must be burned or put into the sewer. Flying dust is one of the means of spreading influenza infections,'"  Dr. Inches said at the time.

Improved hygiene and face masks did help slow the flu's spread. On Oct. 24, the number of cases dropped 25%, according to a report by local physicians.

"New cases of influenza reported in Detroit this noon for the preceding 24 hours totaled only 873, Curate Fronts against a total Wednesday of 1,256," The Detroit News reported. "This is a decrease of 412, or approximately 25 percent. The decrease Wednesday from Tuesday was 61 cases. 

Motor Corps and Canteen volunteers from the Detroit chapter of the American Red Cross, taking a break from delivering supplies to influenza victims.

"The closing of the stores at 4:30 o'clock which began yesterday, has had a good effect in reducing rush-hour streetcar traffic."

By Oct. 26, there were fewer cases, according to a report at noon from physicians, and schools were reopened. Vaccines were made available to factory workers and employees of other businesses.

There was a nonhuman fatality. A bear housed at the Belle Isle Zoo died from the Spanish flu on Nov. 2, The Detroit News reported.  

Mess time at U.S. Army Camp Custer during World War I. Camp Custer was one of the places that saw a major outbreak of Spanish flu.

By November 1920, influenza is no longer an epidemic in Detroit. Dr. Inches stated ly that the extreme danger which the city has been facing for many weeks is a thing of the past, The Detroit News reported. He added that Detroit passed through the epidemic with the best record of any city in the country.

"That does not mean that there is no more influenza in the city," Dr. Inches said.