Local history: Looking back at how the Spanish Flu hit Lawrence and KU

I started this story in December of 2019 because I remembered how much people in audiences through the years have enjoyed hearing about the home remedies that were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As I took another look at it recently, I realized the article shouldn’t just be about home remedies but also should look more closely at the event that put so many home remedies to the test — the flu epidemic of 1918-1919.

In the midst of our own pandemic, Monica Davis, research services coordinator at the Watkins Museum of History, has shared with me the statistics of 1916-1919 from the Kansas State Board of Health regarding the deaths and cases that occurred here then. In 1918 there were 58 deaths due to influenza and 64 deaths due to pneumonia. In 1919 there were four deaths due to influenza and 18 due to pneumonia. Douglas County’s population was 23,998 including Lawrence, and the population of Lawrence in 1920 was 12,456. Comparatively, in all of Douglas County, the total number of deaths was 288 in 1916, 314 in 1917, 345 in 1918, and 238 in 1919. From October of 1918 through April 1919 there were 2,371 cases.

Historians have traced the origins of the 1918-1919 pandemic to Haskell County, Kansas, and also point out the role of then-Camp Funston (now Fort Riley) as a place from which the virus spread. John M. Barry, in “The Great Influenza,” notes that the U.S. saw 675,000 deaths out of a population of 105 million, and at least 20 million of the worldwide population of 1.8 billion died.

Elfreide Fischer Rowe (1896-1992), a longtime Lawrence resident, in the 1960s wrote a series of historical stories in the Lawrence Journal-World. In the 1970s, these stories were collected and published by the World Company as “Wonderful Old Lawrence.” Originally published on December 13, 1968, was an article titled “Home Remedies.” Here is an excerpt of this article:

“Recovering from the present flu bug gave us time to remember all of the home remedies used years ago, and probably now long forgotten. Just 52 years ago (1916-1918), the worst flu epidemic in Lawrence and in the country, took the lives of scores of old and young. The only means of combating the disease was aspirin and whiskey.”

Mrs. Rowe’s memories remind us that home remedies were the only available medicine in many cases to treat the everyday aches and pains and also the pandemic of 1918-1919.

A spring 1992 Kansas Historical Quarterly article entitled “Kansas in the ‘Grippe'” indicates that KU in the fall of 1918 was in the center of the influenza crisis, noting, “Circumstances were equally desperate at the University of Kansas where the president closed the school on October 8. Because the epidemic at the time appeared confined to ‘the Hill’ where the campus was located, the city board of health encouraged students to remain in their dormitories or at the very least, to stay in Lawrence to prevent the spread of the disease. Even though the university closed, the student publication continued operation one more day and reminded the students of their obligations in the present emergency. In an editorial on October 9, the University Daily Kansan addressed the situation by noting, “It is your patriotic duty to stay here. By doing so, you will safeguard your health, the health of members of your family, and people in your hometown.”

By the time the closure actually ended a month later, almost 1,000 members of the university community, including students and faculty, had fallen ill with the flu. The 1918 flu also held a parallel to today’s instances of pandemic-related ethnic and racial accusations, as the student newspaper announcing the school’s closure also had an article seizing on the wartime anti-German sentiment to argue that the flu “should be called Hun influenza, because it is a slick, sly, tricky and heartless ailment.”

— Local history is a monthly column in the Journal-World. Steve Jansen has been a resident of Lawrence since 1974. He was an employee of the Watkins Museum of History from 1977 to 2002; notably the director from 1979 to 2001. He received his Ph.D in History from the University of Kansas in 1985. He edited the Pictorial History of Lawrence Douglas County Kansas in 1992.

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