Skip to Content

“Spanish Influenza” in Brooklyn and What We Can Learn from Our History

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on May 15, 2020

“We turn to the history of the “Spanish” influenza pandemic, which swept through New York City in several waves between 1918 and 1920. Today, insights from this past may help us cautiously begin this next chapter in our present.”
Nalleli Guillen
New York State’s Regional Monitoring Dashboard

New York State’s Regional Monitoring Dashboard

New York State’s Regional Monitoring Dashboard, https://forward.ny.gov/regional-monitoring-dashboard

On Friday, May 15, New York State will begin the gradual process of rolling back the Executive Order known as NY Pause. This ten-point mandate closed all non-essential businesses, banned social gatherings of any size, and made social distancing a way of life, all in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19. Having met the governor’s seven criteria for reopening their economies, several regions of the state—including Finger Lakes, Central New York, Mohawk Valley, Southern Tier, and the North Country—can now begin considering a return to pre-pandemic routines.

NY Pause will remain in place over New York City and Long Island until at least May 28, but this upstate news triggers a flood of emotions: excitement for an eventual return to “normal,” renewed pain from the trauma we have lived through, and fear of what the future might hold. For perspective, in this blog we turn to the history of the “Spanish” influenza pandemic, which swept through New York City in several waves between 1918 and 1920. Today, insights from this past may help us cautiously begin this next chapter in our present.

In 1918, in the midst of World War I, a new deadly strain of influenza caused by the H1N1 virus swept the globe. Nicknamed the “Spanish” influenza despite uncertainty as to where the disease originated from, this pandemic was devastating, killing between 25 and 100 million people around the world, including over 675,000 Americans. This also included as many as 40,000 New Yorkers.

Red Cross Emergency Ambulance station during influenza pandemic, 1918
Red Cross Emergency Ambulance station during influenza pandemic, 1918 Red Cross Emergency Ambulance station during influenza pandemic, 1918 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The first known case in the United States was reported at a military base in Kansas on March 11, but the beginning of the outbreak in America remains mysterious due to a lack of early information. New York City’s Board of Health only made influenza and pneumonia reportable on September 17, over a month after the first known case arrived in the city.

On August 12, the Norwegian steamer ship Bergensfjord docked in Brooklyn with at least 11 crew and ten passengers sick who were quarantined in the Norwegian Hospital in Brooklyn. While most scientists and historians agree that New York City experienced three waves of influenza between September 1918 and February 1919, some argue an earlier first wave may have gone undetected in the city in the spring of 1918.

New city leadership, including Mayor John F. Hylan and his Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland, launched new public health policies and a citywide educational campaign. In order to reduce congestion on subway and elevated “el” train platforms, businesses were asked to stagger their business hours.

Schools and theaters remained open. City leaders believed children were safer in schools than in crowded tenement apartments and used theaters to disseminate information about the disease. The public also received a flood of information through pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers, warning them to cover their mouths and nose when coughing or sneezing, and to stop spitting in public spaces.

Try to Identify Germ that Claimed Victims on Ship

Try to Identify Germ that Claimed Victims on Ship

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 14, 1918 Brooklyn Public Library

The first known case in the United States was reported at a military base in Kansas on March 11, but the beginning of the outbreak in America remains mysterious due to a lack of early information. New York City’s Board of Health only made influenza and pneumonia reportable on September 17, over a month after the first known case arrived in the city.

On August 12, the Norwegian steamer ship Bergensfjord docked in Brooklyn with at least 11 crew and ten passengers sick who were quarantined in the Norwegian Hospital in Brooklyn. While most scientists and historians agree that New York City experienced three waves of influenza between September 1918 and February 1919, some argue an earlier first wave may have gone undetected in the city in the spring of 1918.

New city leadership, including Mayor John F. Hylan and his Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland, launched new public health policies and a citywide educational campaign. In order to reduce congestion on subway and elevated “el” train platforms, businesses were asked to stagger their business hours.

Schools and theaters remained open. City leaders believed children were safer in schools than in crowded tenement apartments and used theaters to disseminate information about the disease. The public also received a flood of information through pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers, warning them to cover their mouths and nose when coughing or sneezing, and to stop spitting in public spaces.

Despite these measures, thousands fell ill. New York City’s “Fall” wave from mid-September to mid-November 1918 took the lives of over 20,000 New Yorkers. Disproportionately, those who died were young, between 15 and 45 years old.

The majority of the sick quarantined in their homes and received home health care from nurses working out of hundreds of temporary emergency health centers throughout the city.

Brooklyn was hit particularly hard, especially in neighborhoods like Brownsville with working class immigrant communities who lived in densely crowded conditions. The Department of Health reported that in November 1918, 5,792 Brooklynites succumbed to influenza or its offshoot, pneumonia, more than in any other borough.

Red Cross nurses roll bandages at the Long Island Historical Society, 1914-1918

Red Cross nurses roll bandages at the Long Island Historical Society, 1914-1918

Red Cross nurses roll bandages at the Long Island Historical Society, 1914-1918 V1973.2.238 Brooklyn Historical Society.

Despite these measures, thousands fell ill. New York City’s “Fall” wave from mid-September to mid-November 1918 took the lives of over 20,000 New Yorkers. Disproportionately, those who died were young, between 15 and 45 years old.

The majority of the sick quarantined in their homes and received home health care from nurses working out of hundreds of temporary emergency health centers throughout the city.

Brooklyn was hit particularly hard, especially in neighborhoods like Brownsville with working class immigrant communities who lived in densely crowded conditions. The Department of Health reported that in November 1918, 5,792 Brooklynites succumbed to influenza or its offshoot, pneumonia, more than in any other borough.

Warns of Return of Flu

Warns of Return of Flu

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 22, 1919 Brooklyn Public Library

By mid-November 1918, the Fall wave had crested, as infections and reported deaths returned to pre-pandemic mortality levels. With the worst seemingly behind them, people began to relax, some even comfortable enough by Christmas 1918 to declare the “influenza gone.” With no vaccine or treatment in place however, these hopes were dashed by the resurgence of influenza in two more waves throughout 1919. Together, these waves took the lives of nearly 16,000 more individuals. Statistics that show that New York fared better than other major cities like Boston and Philadelphia are little comfort in the face of so much loss.

As our recent experiences have shown us, as New Yorkers we remain vulnerable. However, today more than ever before, we are capable of protecting ourselves and each other. The digital age has made life-saving knowledge available at a click, over the internet or on our televisions and phones. As we come down the mountain we must continue being alert, social distancing and isolating should symptoms manifest. Another wave may come but we are NY tough, strong, smart, and capable of tackling this together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked