In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

The Spanish Flu

Text contributions from Ian Saxine, MHS Historian. Items courtesy of Mercy Hospital and Maine Memory Network.

News office storefront, Portland, ca. 1918
News office storefront, Portland, ca. 1918
Maine Historical Society/MaineToday Media

Mercy Hospital was founded in response to one of the most lethal pandemics in human history. The global Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, far more than the 21 million killed in the much more publicized First World War (1914-1918). In the United States, about 670,000 people died of the flu, out of a population of 105 million. Soldiers serving in the military in crowded encampments were also hard hit. Of the 1,032 Mainers who died during the war, over half died of the flu. Like other Americans, Mainers noticed that the flu seemed to be just as dangerous as the fighting.

Private Harvey Foster received letters from friends and family living near Portland attesting to that fact. His sister Alice wrote from Steep Falls, listing the latest deaths in town, lamenting, “Isn’t it awfully bad. Honestly we are loosing [sic] about as many in our country as they are in France.” Writing Foster just a week later, his friend Manola Gilman of Cumberland Mills noted “you boys are about as safe in France now tho [sic] as the people are around here. This Spanish Influenza is an awful disease…”

Historians still debate where it began. The pandemic obtained the name “Spanish Influenza” because the press in many belligerent nations during World War I minimized the impact of the disease at the behest of government censors afraid of spreading fear and weakening the war effort. In contrast, the neutral Spanish press covered the pandemic’s course in greater detail, leading to popular misperceptions of its severity in that country.

A milder first wave struck in January 1918, with mortality rates not far outside of a normal flu season. However, a much more lethal (and seasonally unusual) second wave flared up in August 1918. Medical historians have found that the H1N1 strain of influenza (seen again in 2009) was exceptionally virulent, with death rates among the infected running as high as 20%.

Sumner Cobb writes from Camp Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky, 1918
Sumner Cobb writes from Camp Taylor, Louisville, Kentucky, 1918
A letter from Sumner Cobb to his family, discussing the Spanish Flu.Maine Historical Society

Another unusual aspect of the “Spanish Flu” was that unlike most years, when the very young and old suffered the most, the people most likely to die were aged 20-40, because this strain triggered an overreaction in that age group’s immune systems. The resulting inflammation savaged the linings of the respiratory system, which caused the lungs to fill with fluid and allowed pneumonia bacteria to overwhelm them.

The first patient appeared at Maine General Hospital on September 19, prompting administrators to establish an isolation ward rather than risk infecting the general population. Their annual report noted “We filled all available space in the old unused amphitheater with influenza cases,” but “it was extremely difficult to do work with these extemporaneous facilities.” Mercy Hospital opened its doors in response to the deadly epidemic, fulfilling the city’s ever-growing need for services.

The epidemic peaked in Portland during October. By the 24th of that month, there were over 8,200 reported cases (almost certainly an undercount) with 200 deaths. There were so many influenza cases in the Italian quarter that St. Peter’s Church opened and filled with beds for people quarantining infected relatives at home. Churches in the city held open air masses to prevent infections from spreading. Schools and public places closed as well. In neighboring towns like Bath, people tagged their houses with white cards or red letters warning people not to enter due to infected residents inside.

The sickness began to taper off during November in Portland and surrounding communities. By the time it ended, the Spanish Flu had claimed over 5,000 lives in the state. Besides the losses of loved ones, the disease left an impact on public health policy in Maine. For example, the state soon passed a law requiring all public schools to offer instruction in personal hygiene and community sanitation.