History Hub

Cleveland History: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

The year is 1918—entertainers such as Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin are amazing the world with their talents, and the end of World War I is close at hand. The golden age of what would later be called “The Roaring 20’s” is approaching, and it seems as if the last four years of wartime might be replaced with growth and stability. How could anyone have known that a disease was brewing– one so large that it would take more lives than the Great War ever would. Killing over 50 million people world-wide, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 would eclipse the 16 million lives taken by World War I– making the strain of influenza one of the deadliest world events in recent history, second only to World War II.


influenza hospital
Makeshift hospital used to treat influenza patients in 1918

At first, the killer strain of influenza seemed mild. In the Spring of 1918, there were several reported cases of what was then called “3 Day Fever.” While this first strain certainly took a remarkable amount of lives, its patterns were typical with other flu outbreaks at the time, and therefore it didn’t draw much attention from the public. It wasn’t until the early Fall of 1918 that the second strain would first be reported. The second strain was much more severe, and resulted in millions of fatalities.




As an airborne illness, the disease spread rapidly, particularly in the trenches of World War I and highly populated areas. Also, contrary to most illnesses, it seemed to target previously healthy young adults, as opposed to the usual groups such as infants or the elderly. Seeing as penicillin would not be discovered for another 10 years, it is clear that the world was at a loss for how to handle and treat this mysterious illness.


Cleveland, OH received its first warning about the disease in September of 1918. Dr. Harry Rockwood was the City Health Commissioner at the time, and seeing as how the war effort was still underway, he was hesitant to enforce any isolation measures at first. However, by October 1918 Rockwood understood the drastic impact of the pandemic and decided to enact an isolation policy. All of those exhibiting symptoms were required to be admitted to the contagious ward at their local hospital. Employers and teachers were encouraged to report anyone showing symptoms as well.



police during epidemic
Police officers wearing protective masks to prevent the spread of the disease



By mid-October Rockwood placed a complete gathering ban. All public gatherings were prohibited, resulting in the temporary closings of movie theaters, restaurants, schools, and offices. The city of Cleveland was on lockdown, having reported thousands of cases of the disease and hundreds of deaths. It wasn’t until mid-November that Rockwood would lift the ban, and life in Cleveland began to slowly get back to normal. In all, an estimated 24,000 Cleveland residents contracted the disease, and nearly 4,000 would find the disease fatal. Calvary Cemetery in Cleveland, OH buried 985 of these causalities, and on November 4th, 1918 the cemetery reported burying 81 people on a single day!


The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 will forever go down as one of the most destructive pandemics in modern history—Cleveland was no exception to its destruction, and it’s important that we remember those who lost their lives to such a tragic occurrence.

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Post written by Katie Karpinski



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