In 1918 the Spanish Flu ravaged the United States, particularly in the city of Philadelphia where thousands of people died. This project centers around the collation of texts and images of the 1918 Flu pandemic in the city of Philadelphia during the months of July to December of 1918 with the ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic in the same city. I argue that through the juxtaposition of a texts that we can elucidate a variety of themes that transcend time including racism, patriotism, and reactions of fear.
Integral to the comparison and analysis of the coverage surrounding historical and present-day events is a clear definition of the word pandemic. According to the Dictionary of Epidemiology, a pandemic is, “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.” Both the 1918 Flu and COVID-19 meet the requirements specified in this definition.
Image: "Electron micrograph of 1918 H1N1 influenza virus particles near a cell" by NIAID.
In the summer of 1918, while the First World War was raging, the initial cases of the Spanish Flu came to Philadelphia. Similar to many other pandemics and disease outbreaks, the viral infectious disease fostered reactions from fear and trepidation to disbelief and ridicule. The first cases were brought when a British freighter docked in Philadelphia because the crew was acutely ill. While Philadelphians were initially frightened about the illness, most constituent’s worries settled when no cases appeared for weeks. Citizens returned to their daily routines, focusing on furthering the war efforts through liberty bonds and producing supplies.
Background image: Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1918. "Philadelphia, PA Naval Shipyard - Building 18 (in March 1918)" by army.archives.
The Liberty Loan parade held on September 28, 1918 garnered the attendance of nearly 200,000 Philadelphians. According to Megan Flynn who wrote, “What happens if parades aren’t canceled during pandemics? Philadelphia found out in 1918, with disastrous results.” in The Washington Post, “Within three days, every bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was filled. There were thousands of influenza patients.” MD Isaac Starr was a third-year medical school student in Philadelphia at the time. Due to the number of medical practitioners abroad for the war effort, the third- and fourth-year students became the first responders to this pernicious pandemic. Starr, who published “Influenza in 1918: Recollections of the Epidemic in Philadelphia,” in Annals of Internal Medicine in 1976, recalls watching patients entering the ward with what appeared to be minor ailments, only to die days later. He said, “Thinking of my function as that of a nurse, I was prepared to carry out the orders given to me. But for most patients there were no orders, and many died without having been seen by any medical attendant but me.” Suddenly, in a matter of weeks the Spanish Flu had devastated the city, leaving thousands dead. In a total of six months, nearly 17,000 Philadelphians died.
Background image depicts several doctors operating on a patient as medical students observe. "This image is taken from History of the Homoeopathic Medical College of Pennsylvania : the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital of Philadelphia" by Medical Heritage Library, Inc.
There was no information published about the British freighter docked in Philadelphia’s harbor in the middle of July. Instead The Philadelphia Inquirer focused its attention on relaying information about the war to readers. The city was, after all, one of the nation’s primary hubs for the creation of ships and steel to be contributed to the war effort. The publication praised the exceedingly large amount of public engagement fostered fourth Liberty Loan parade that took place on the 28th of September—the parade that would eventually lead to a massive spike in cases. The admiration spanned the entire front page, applauding the women, children, and soldiers who participated.
Background image is the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer on September 29, 1918. Click here for access to that page.
In response a letter to the editor entitled, “Halting the Procession of Fear,” in The Philadelphia Inquirer and signed, “M.” commended the writer and suggested that the biggest problem was the fear, not the ailment. The author also praised the newspaper for not publishing a death toll. Despite the pandemic overwhelming hospitals, and the morgue not being able to keep up with the amount of bodies, the pandemic's devastation of the city was strangely absent in the newspaper. Instead the media outlet focused on how the Penn's game was canceled and the schools were closed because of it.
Image: Cartoon about how the Spanish Flu was ruining the sports world. "An Unwelcome Visitor" by Jim Nasium, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on October 5, 1918.
Despite the passage of nearly 100 years, numerous medical advancements, and the invention of digital intermediaries, certain themes remain the same. While it is may be easier to point out the differences between the past and present, it is often more beneficial to discover what ideas, societal expectations, and themes remain unchanged. By looking at the current coverage surrounding COVID-19 and comparing it with the previous pandemic several messages can be uncovered.
Photo of Philadelphia City Hall at night. "Philadelphia City Hall" by michaelrighi
On February 4, 2020, two days before the first known death as a result of the virus in the United States, an article in The Philly Voice discussed how Asians living in Philadelphia had been unfairly labeled as agents of the disease. Many people afraid of the virus were creating fear of Asians and Asian-American communities and fostering anti-Asian biases because the virus that causes COVID-19 started in Wuhan China in December of 2019.
Image: The deserted streets of Wuhan, China amidst the pandemic. "After the K.O." by Go-tea 郭天
On Wednesday, March 4 the state announces its first known case of COVID-19. Despite the state closing 63 schools and limiting gatherings to less than 250 people cases of coronavirus spread quickly throughout the city. In an effort to preemptively prepare for the surge in cases, Philadelphia Mayor, Jim Kenney starts trying to figure out locations to situate tent hospitals. An article by Inga Saffron entitled,"Philadelphia brings in tent hospitals and extra staff for the coming coronavirus surge" published on April 1, 2020 by The Philadelphia Inquirer discusses the preparation, and why it is so needed. "During the flu epidemic of 1918, a victim, wrapped in a blanket, is escorted by a policeman. The epidemic killed an estimated 675,000 in the U.S. Health officials — while nervously eyeing New York City’s soaring casualties — say they hope never to have to use the emergency facilities. But the efforts are grim echoes of 1918, when the so-called Spanish Flu ravaged the city."
Image: "Sample of test tubes. A healthcare provider donning a pair of green latex gloves in order to protect herself during her subsequent interaction her next patient." Original image sourced from US Government department: Public Health Image Library, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2282599
Tension over the murders of several black Americans including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor also sparked protests and marches across Philadelphia. On June 23, The Philadelphia Inquirer covered a Black Lives Matter march that took place on Broad Street of Philadelphia, the same street that had attracted so many visitor in the summer of 1918. Unlike the Liberty Loan Parade though, only hundreds attended the event as opposed to thousands. Also, as the image depicts, most protestors wore masks. As seen in the image below, protestors also did caravans so as to maintain social distancing measures.
Background Image: "Human Rights Advocates, Hunger Strikers, Gather to Tell Wolf: “Free People Now!”" by joepiette2.
Similarly to the 1918 Pandemic, many Philadelphians felt that the government's cavalier attitude towards COVID-19 led to unnecessary loss. On October 16, 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article about how President Trump's indifference toward this pandemic is particularly offensive to Philadelphian's fighting for their lives. Like the 1918 article in the same publication, the author emphasized that the United States knew the coronavirus was coming, but did little to protect its people from it.
The coronavirus continues to affect people across the nation, especially Philadelphia. On November 6, 2020 and article in The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that, the city was in possibly the worst period of the pandemic. According to The City of Philadelphia COVID-19 Overview, updated on December 6, the cases are starting to lower; however, it will be a long time before Philadelphia, or any US city for the matter, is recovered from this pandemic.
Image: "Coronavirus" by Muenocchio.
Created with an image by moritz320 - "newspaper article freedom of the press"