Recalling the 1918 flu pandemic: 'The numbers horrified them'

·3 min read

Apr. 21—When the influenza pandemic hit Johnstown in September 1918, the local medical community knew what to expect.

Many of them had just returned from helping with Philadelphia's initial surge, history professor Paul Douglas Newman said.

"It got so bad in Philadelphia by early September that about half of the doctors and nurses from Conemaugh Hospital got on a Pennsylvania Railroad train and went to Philadelphia to help in the hospitals. They were just overrun," Newman said Tuesday during an online town hall.

Newman recapped his research into the local response for the 1918-19 pandemic during the latest installment of "COVID Questions," a series of forums sponsored by In This Together Cambria, Pitt-Johnstown and The Tribune-Democrat.

Tuesday's forum previewed "We're All In This Together," a film about the earlier pandemic. The first segment of the film premieres online Thursday, with three more segments coming over the next three Thursdays.

In addition to Newman, Tuesday's event featured Johnstown-area native Judith Walzer Leavitt, history professor emerita in University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Jill Henning, associate professor of biology at UPJ.

Newman's presentation on Tuesday featured a slideshow with clippings from The Tribune-Democrat's predecessors, The Johnstown Tribune and The Johnstown Democrat.

The first cases were reported in the Sept. 23, 1918, editions, and subsequent reports showed the Cambria County Medical Society met with the mayor to rally the city and local businesses against the virus. The society called for lockdowns, suspension of public meetings, advisories against riding the streetcars, and school and church closures.

"They were serious about this," Newman said. "They knew what was happening in Philadelphia, and the numbers horrified them."

In contrast to the COVID-19 pandemic, Newman said, the first wave of influenza hit the United States at a time when patriotism dominated. It was near the end of World War I and the nation was accustomed to home-front projects to support the war effort.

While that helped initially, it backfired on Sept. 28 during a countywide celebration to sell war bonds. Every community held parades and events featuring large crowds.

"These events were massive super-spreader events," Newman said.

As the flu swept through families, as many as 800 children were orphaned in Johnstown.

The Johnstown YWCA stepped forward, to not only care for the orphans, but care for healthy children whose parents were ill, the clippings showed.

Newman closed with a clipping that described the teamwork of millions of flu "germs" pitted against the teamwork of Johnstown residents fighting the pandemic.

Leavitt then compared Johnstown's 1918 response to Milwaukee's, noting the Wisconsin city was the nation's second-most successful city in dealing with the pandemic.

She said the keys were a public-private partnership that secured funding for hospitals, activated volunteer groups and kept communications open and transparent.

Henning described the biological differences between the two viruses, noting the influenza pandemic struck an estimated 500 million people worldwide, while the COVID-19 pandemic has infected 142 million.

"Hopefully, we have learned some lessons over time," Henning said.

Thursday's film premiere will be available by Zoom at https://pitt.zoom.us/j/96156145654; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/inthistogethercambria; or on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-mdZR2_0soiwIfZQIMxzMg.

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