Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Houston's pandemic panic

As we enter flu shot season, let’s look at how the Spanish Flu Pandemic affected Houston.

As early as July 1918, health officials in the east had sounded the alarm over the malady. Philadelphia and Boston were among the first cities to report a significant number of cases. In fact, according to a PBS documentary, 635 new cases of influenza were reported in Philadelphia in late September shortly after 200,000 gathered for a Liberty Loan drive.

In Houston, things were calm. By Sept. 27, 1918, there were about 25 cases in the city. Four cases were localized to the home of the Emma R. Newsboys Association and nine other cases were reported in Magnolia Park.

Lt. J.W. McDonald, a government official who had been handling the cases, advised against closing the schools or quarantining Camp Logan.

“I think the ‘Spanish’ should be left off the disease that has visited Houston,” he told the Houston Press in its Sept. 27 edition. “It is more like la grippe.”

Less than two weeks later, on Oct. 9, 1918, Houston City Council ordered a shutdown of all schools and public places.

“This includes schools, moving pictures, theaters, churches and in fact all manner of assemblages,” the Houston Press reported that day.

The WPA Guide to Houston says that between 600 and 700 cases of Spanish Flu were reported at Camp Logan. By Oct. 14, the deaths totaled 111 after just a few weeks.

(In 1920, Houston had a population of 138,276, according the Chronicle’s 1924 guide to the city. One hundred and eleven of 138,276 is about .08 percent.

According to the U.S. Census, Houston had a population of 2,016,582 in 2005. If a disease struck Houston and killed about .08 percent of the city’s population, about 1,600 residents would be dead. Imagine…1,600 Houstonians dead in a matter of weeks!)

City officials hoped everything would calm down in a few days and planned to lift the flu quarantine in a week.

Actually, it wasn’t lifted for another 16 days.

Hit hard by the shutdown were local theaters, which lost thousands of dollars during that period. The theaters reopened with such acts including Fred Bowers’ “Annual Song Review” and Jack Lingwood of Canada’s Princess Pat regiment.



At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think someone's done some editing on your math. 111/138276 is about 0.0008, or 0.08%, not 8%. Perhaps someone saw the 0.08% and "corrected" it for you?

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(But oddly, the math for current day Houston works out to about 1700 anyway.)

At 12:27 PM, Blogger J.R.G. said...

You're absolutely right! The error came when I needlessly moved the decimal point. That's what I get for posting at 2 a.m.!

The entry has been fixed. Thanks again.

At 4:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm looking for personal accounts of the 1918 influenza in Houston or Galveston or surrounding areas. Have you come across any in your research on Houston?

Thanks for your blog!


At 8:57 PM, Blogger J.R.G. said...


Thanks for the comment!

I'm not aware of any personal accounts, aside from what may have appeared in the newspaper at the time. I'll be sure to keep an eye out and post whatever I come across, though.

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




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