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1918 Spanish Flu in Seattle

October 30, 2014

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 hit many American cities, including Seattle.  Local authorities shut down theaters and other public gathering spots, and when the outbreak was over, more than 2,000 people had died.  We look back with MOHAI Executive Director Leonard Garfield.

Leonard Garfield:  This is a face mask from the Spanish flu in Seattle in 1918.  Everybody was required to wear one if they were going to go outside.  It was believed to be impervious to the Spanish flu.

Feliks Banel:  Leonard Garfield is executive director of Seattle's Museum of History and Industry.  He studies the region's past, but always with an eye to better understanding the present.

Garfield:  In October of 1918, right as World War 1 ended, a train load of troops came from Philadelphia to Seattle to camp Lewis and camp Lawton.  And they were ill.  They had been exposed to the Spanish flu in Philadelphia and they brought it to Seattle.  Within a matter of days, people in the city began to get sick.  And within a few months, 1600 people had died and many more were stricken.

Banel:  Then, as now, public officials were faced with making decisions that could mean life or death.

Garfield:  Mayor Hanson decided that something decisive and swift was needed to curb the illness.  So he banned all public gatherings, school was canceled for months on end, churches were closed, theaters were closed.

Banel: Scientific understanding in 1918 of how the flu spread was limited.  So the actions taken were a gamble.

Garfield:  But you now those steps actually had a positive effect, and by the spring Spanish flu had ended, Seattle was healthy again.

Banel:  And while the Ebola crisis is very different from the flu of 1918, Garfield sees some parallels in how our community should respond to Ebola.

Garfield:  You know I think there’s some lessons to learn, I think that not panicking, but planning, and then taking decisive action.  But some of those actions won’t be popular.  We’ll be required to do some things that as a free society we may feel uncomfortable for a while, but that's necessary for the public health.  And we can look back almost 100 years to see the Spanish flu in Seattle and see that there are ways to conquer disease and preserve public health and personal liberty.  That's the balance we need to strike.



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