From our archives, here’s how GRIT covered the 1918-19 influenza pandemic when it was a rural newspaper based in Williamsport, Pa.
From the spring of 1918 through the fall of 1919, the “Spanish Flu” infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide and killed at least 50 million – 675,000 in the United States – according to the Centers for Disease Control. Without accurate records, the precise number of fatalities is unknown.
With this many deaths, one would assume the news of the day - including the weekly GRIT newspaper - would be full of reports, warnings, and updates on spread. But during the first wave of the disease, which first gained national attention in the United States after military personnel on bases in Kansas began getting sick in the spring of 1918, people seemed to be more focused on the end of World War I and the prospects of prohibition. That began to change by the fall of 1918 when the flu made its deadly reappearance.
This second wave, which lasted until May 1919, would prove to be even deadlier than the first wave. As one reads in this snapshot of GRIT coverage from October-November 1918, we see how that pandemic was beginning to affect every aspect of life in the country back then, much as the coronavirus pandemic is affecting every part of ours today.
These clippings from October, 1918 describe how influenza was once again taking the lives of healthy, young soldiers in local military encampments much like it did when the flu first appeared at Ft. Riley, Kan., that previous spring.
From the October 20, 1918 edition, this article describes how local hospitals are being overrun by the sudden increase in patients requiring hospitalization.
While scientists of the day lacked the technology to understand that what they were dealing with was a virus and not a bacteria, there were plenty of opportunistic peddlers advertising “proven” cures and remedies.
This clipping from October 27, 1918 describes the medical tent cities that began popping up in response to hospitals reaching capacity. Also note the photo of the masked sanitation worker with the caption declaring “Everybody Wears ‘Em.”
By the November 3, 1918 edition it was clear that the growing pandemic was a big enough story to warrant front-page treatment.
The growing death toll warranted expanded obituary sections in the newspaper in early November, 1918.