Washington could not have been less prepared for the Spanish flu epidemic in fall 1918. The city was already suffering through the difficulties presented by World War I. Nearly its entire military-age population was dedicated to the war effort when it found itself in the throws of an acute medical crisis. Doctors and nurses were constantly being pressed into military service, leaving area hospitals short-staffed. GW Hospital, located at 1335 H St. NW, was the hardest-hit hospital in the city because staff members were leaving daily to join the war effort.
In order to continue operating, the remaining hospital staff recruited medical and nursing students to fill positions, but the superintendent of the Medical Center, Mary Glasscock, recognized that the situation was becoming critical. By Sept. 23, she was desperate. Glasscock wrote a four-page letter to a former GW Hospital doctor, D.L. Borden, that painted a dismal picture of an exhausted staff working around the clock with only one doctor on staff qualified to perform surgeries. The hospital did not have any janitors or orderlies because of the lack of men. With the war still being fought, there was no relief in sight, leading Glasscock to wonder, “What will become of us?”
About two weeks later, the 28-year-old Glasscock died of influenza. One of the few qualified doctors on staff, Thomas Miller Jr., was also dead, having caught the flu from his patients. Exhausted doctors and nurses were especially susceptible to the flu because of their own weakened immune systems from long hours treating patients.
By Oct. 2, the flu was front-page news, sharing coverage with WWI. There were 35 deaths in the District in two days, with countless more throughout Virginia and Maryland. GW Hospital had 40 cases, including 15 nurses, which further depleted the overworked staff. City officials immediately closed all churches and schools and began making plans for a temporary hospital solely for flu patients.
The first advice given to city residents was to gather in open-air spaces as much as possible, but within days city officials rescinded that advice and urged residents not to leave their homes. On Oct. 6, the number of cases grew to 1,300 in one day, leading city officials to go to drastic lengths to try to quell the rise in cases. The city began fining and arresting landlords who refused to provide fires for heat in their buildings and threatened to remove all the windows from streetcars, which, because of their compact seating, were breeding grounds for the disease.
The D.C. Health Department forced city universities to close on Oct. 9, giving GW students an unexpected four-week break. Just three days later, D.C. reached the height of the epidemic – 78 deaths in 24 hours and 1,310 new cases during the same day. The flu left the city as quickly it entered, with new cases stalling by Oct. 15. Church services resumed on Oct. 17, and flu coverage disappeared in newspapers by Oct 22.
The University, despite its four-week hiatus, was decidedly unaffected by the epidemic. Commencement was moved back four weeks to June 18, 1919, but there were no student causalities; in fact, no students had been diagnosed at all. The student yearbook and the Board of Trustees minutes make absolutely no mention of the flu.
The flu killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world from 1918 to 1919, more than the Bubonic Plague during its most virulent era.
This article appeared in the October 6, 2003 issue of the Hatchet.