Thursday, January 18, 2018

The 1918 Flu in Oakland (the "Spanish flu")

Flu victims quarantined at the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, 1918.
In the background, stage scenery separates the “wards.”
photo credit: Oakland History Room

Our recent swine flu scare reminded me of another time that our nation braced against an onslaught of disease—but that time it was devastating.

In 1918, a worldwide epidemic of flu killed 400,000 Americans. I first wrote about the flu in 1999 when I found an interesting file on it in the Oakland History Room.

Fear was so great here that City Council passed an ordinance that anyone not wearing a mask over his or her nose and mouth could be arrested. Oakland held the West Coast record for such arrests, estimated to be around 1,000-- this in the period between Nov. 1 and Nov. 22, when the ordinance was repealed.

But the masks were ineffectual. The California State Board of Health issued a report after the epidemic had passed, stating that the masks did not affect the flu’s progress. In fact, they might be anti-beneficial, causing the wearer to repeatedly inhale a warmed percentage of their exhale, creating a fertile ground for germs.

The flu first showed up in Oakland in early October, 1918. Those first six cases were all strangers from out of town. Since the flu originated in the U.S. in Massachusetts in late August 1918, it took a surprisingly short time to make it to our coast, given that airplane travel was not yet common.

Two weeks after those initial six cases, Mayor Davie closed down theaters, schools, churches and poolrooms, just as was recently done in Mexico [note: in 2009], so that large congregations of people would not gather to spread the infection. The wise mayor did not, however, close down the saloons; he merely dictated that they had to use paper cups or sterilize their glasses.

On Oct. 22, the Oakland Municipal Auditorium on the edge of Lake Merritt became an impromptu Red Cross Hospital. A prison chain gang cleaned and mopped the auditorium in preparation for patients.

Since there were no walls to separate the “wards” into male and female sections, someone made the creative decision to use stage scenery (the auditorium had been the site of many theatrical performances). The temporary 500-bed hospital operated for less than a month, but saw a lot of patients in that short time.

The first night it opened, 75 people showed up, and there was only one doctor on staff and no nurses. Red Cross women who were there that night sewing masks graciously offered their assistance. They simply did what they could to keep people comfortable. Later, one nurse worked five days straight without sleeping.

By late October, an astonishing 4,714 Oaklanders had the flu, according to the Fruitvale Progress. On a single day, 214 cases were reported.

By early November, the Oakland death toll was 450. Nationally, there were more deaths from the flu than on the battlefields in France—since WWI was concurrent with this epidemic. On Armistice Day, Nov. 11, a nurse from the municipal auditorium remembered people wild in the streets with celebration, while the patients still lay miserably abed.

By late November, as quickly as it had come on, the flu abated. A second outbreak came in early 1919 (Mayor Davie was arrested in Sacramento for not wearing his mask), a third in Fall 1919, and a fourth in 1920.

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Erika Mailman is the author of several historical novels. Reach her through her website,
This column originally appeared in the Montclarion newspaper in 2009, as part of my "Looking Back" column which ran from 1999 to 2011.

1 comment:

Don said...

My grandmother was 16 and spent at least some of her high school years in Alameda. There's nary a peep about the '18 flu in the family lore. There's not much lore.