Face masks. School closures. No public gatherings. Sound familiar? The measures that are being implemented today to help stop the spread of the coronavirus are the same ones used in 1918 in response to the influenza pandemic.
Russell Johnson M.A. ’83, M.L.I.S. ’93, UCLA Library Special Collections’ curator for history of medicine and the sciences, has been gathering letters, photographs and ephemera to better understand how people dealt with the pandemic more than 100 years ago. Entitled Collection of Personal Narratives, Manuscripts and Ephemera about the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic, the remarkable trove helps shed some light on what people were going through at that time. “You’re seeing it through the perspective of real people writing about it immediately to members of the family or friends or [as] diaries to themselves,” Johnson says. “You’re really seeing it in their words.”
In September 1918, the first civilian cases of influenza were reported in Los Angeles. Then-Mayor Frederick T. Woodman responded quickly, creating a Medical Advisory Board to support City Health Commissioner Luther Powers. The board met with businessmen and health officers in early October, and all agreed that public meeting places — such as schools, theaters, restaurants and churches — should be closed to limit the spread of influenza.
“Although other educational activities are closed, U.C. still goes on. Our class has been in a sad state between military orders and illness. Our boys have had a hard time very ill in the barracks and quarantined to boot. We are running classes 6 days a week so it keeps us busy.” — Dolores in Berkeley, Calif., to her father, Nov. 6, 1918
On Oct. 11, Woodman declared a state of public emergency, and Powers banned all public gatherings and closed K–12 schools. The Board of Education and Superintendent Albert J. Shiels supported the measure, and those schools remained closed until the next year.
However, higher education schools, including UC Berkeley, were kept open for military training.
At that time, UCLA — the Southern Branch of the University of California — had not yet been created. But its earlier incarnation — the Los Angeles State Normal School, California’s largest teachers college — stayed open, offering training classes for public school teachers. The school also had a branch of the Students’ Army Training Corps, a program that used colleges and universities as training facilities for soldiers.
“I rushed down to church yesterday morning only to find that there were no services, the church having been closed by the Board of Health on account of the influenza. All the movies, pool halls and other public gathering places have been closed. The epidemic seems quite general, although I don’t think it is as general or as bad as it is cast. Its [sic] been necessary to turn several buildings into hospitals though, to hold the sick people.” — John E. O’Hora in Palo Alto, Calif., to his sister, Oct. 14, 1918
“Throughout the letters and the diaries at the time, people [are] talking about the outbreaks in the camps, the outbreaks at home, comparing notes. It’s a new phenomenon to them,” Johnson says. “People are encountering it as something new and something serious — and also as part of life.”
L.A. enforced physical distancing early — even canceling a Liberty Bonds drive, large public gatherings where people bought bonds to raise money for World War I. Mayor Woodman would not let the event take place, and that may have helped tamp down the number of cases per capita compared to other cities, such as San Francisco.
“It is necessary that these masks be KEPT CLEAN AT ALL TIMES. THEY MUST NOT BE HANDLED AFTER THEY ARE TIED ON.” — California State Board of Health’s “To Avoid Influenza, Wear a Mask” flyer
During the influenza pandemic, masks were encouraged, but there wasn’t a statewide or nationwide mandate, because the efficacy of masks was intensely debated. In the Bay Area, physician Woods Hutchinson managed to convince San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley to enforce a mandatory mask requirement.
But when Hutchinson traveled to L.A. to discuss the issue with city leaders, there was disagreement. While both Woodman and Powers agreed with Hutchinson, the Los Angeles City Council refused to require people to wear masks.
In the end, California’s then-Gov. William Stephens would only call for voluntary mask wearing to help control the spread of influenza, and individual cities enacted their own rules of enforcement.
The 1918 flu pandemic had an immense impact on the entire world. About 500 million people were infected with the virus. In the U.S., about 675,000 people died; worldwide, there were at least 50 million deaths.
Because L.A. acted early, enforcing measures to limit infection rates, only 494 of every 100,000 residents died, equating to about 2,800 deaths out of a population of around 570,000.
“With the involvement of the public health departments, the city was so on top of getting numbers, documenting everything, looking for trends and seeing where resources were needed,” Johnson explains.
By the end of the 1918 pandemic, L.A. had emerged as one of the cities that had implemented an effective response. Angelenos can look back to that success — more than a century ago — and find lessons for today’s health crisis.