Today in 1919, the medical paper “Complications of Influenza” was read to a desperately worried Hartford County Medical Society, which feared a renewed outbreak of a devastating global flu pandemic that had first reared its ugly head in Connecticut nearly 12 months before. This strain of flu – commonly called “Spanish influenza” though it had originated at a military base in Kansas – was unlike any ever seen before. More virulent, it ultimately killed over 600,000 people in the United States and up to 100 million across the globe.
As Connecticut was home to a number of busy port cities and also had many densely populated urban industrial centers, it was particularly susceptible to the deadly disease. The 1918 flu entered the state through the port of New London, which served as a collection point and embarkation center for troops going overseas in World War I. From there, it spread in a horseshoe pattern, moving up through New London into Tolland County, and then west and south to Hartford, New Haven, Fairfield and Litchfield.
Though its initial outbreak in the spring of 1918 was deceptively, and relatively, mild, its second wave the following fall was devastating. In October 1918, flu was so widespread, several Connecticut cities closed schools and other public gathering places in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading farther. Factories throughout the state shuttered their doors for days at a time to prevent their entire workforces from becoming sick. Waterbury experienced a coffin shortage, and the Hartford Board of Aldermen voted to convert the Hartford Golf Club’s clubhouse into a temporary hospital to quarantine flu-infected patients.
Atypical of most strains of influenza, the virus behind the global 1918 pandemic targeted healthy adults, not just children and the elderly and infirm, and it affected men disproportionately (56.8% of fatalities in Connecticut) more than women. Its impact on the state’s population was worse than any war. With no cure or vaccine available, the virus claimed more than 8,500 Connecticans. The death rate across the state was 6.8 per 1000 people afflicted, though in the smaller, crowded factory towns of Windham, Derby and Seymour, the death rate was much higher – 11.7 per thousand. All Connecticans’ lives were disrupted, if not by the disease itself, by the fear of being one of its victims. In addition to closed factories and shuttered businesses, thousands of people voluntarily isolated themselves in their homes for long periods from fear of catching the deadly disease.
Thankfully — although the Hartford County Medical Society didn’t know it when they gathered today in 1919 to discuss the “Complications of Influenza” — the global pandemic had already peaked and was winding down. The deadliest epidemic the state of Connecticut had experienced up to that time (Covid 19’s death toll has been higher ) was finally coming to a close.
Tasha Caswell, “Eighty-Five Hundred Souls: the 1918-1919 Flu Epidemic in Connecticut,” connecticuthistory.org
Ralph D. Arcari, “Ninety Days that Sickened Connecticut,” Connecticut Explored
Hayley Gross, “1918: A War’s Ending, A Pandemic’s Beginning,” Museum of the City
“Influenza 1918,” PBS Feature Documentary