Spanish Influenza Strikes the Oshkosh Community in 1918

INFLUENZA-commonly called the "flu"-is one of the oldest and most common diseases known to humankind. It can also be one of the deadliest. Thirty-one possible influenza pandemics have been recorded in history, with three occurring in the 20th century: in 1918, 1957, and 1968. The disease still affects large portions of the population each year. Its ability to kill stems from the fact that the virus can mutate quickly, often producing new strains against which humans have no immunity. When this occurs, mortality from influenza can be overwhelming.

The Wisconsin Legislature created the State Board of Health in 1876. The board, along with a strong public health network, responded with one of the best anti-influenza programs in the nation in 1918. Of the 25 registered states, Wisconsin ranked 4th lowest in death rates from influenza and pneumonia from September 1918 to June 1919.

During the fall of 1918, the Oshkosh community knew that the arrival of the "Spanish Flu" was inevitable. They did not know, however, exactly when or who would be the first to bring it to Oshkosh. The 1918 Spanish Flu (also termed la grippe) pandemic charged across America in seven days and across the world in three months. It claimed more lives than all major world wars combined. Estimates of deaths ranged from 20 to 50 million, most in the 90 days between October and December 1918. The flu became associated with high rates of morbidity, mortality, social disruption, and high economic costs and it remains to this day the most destructive pandemic ever known.

The flu killed indiscriminately. Its incubation period and the onset of symptoms were so short that apparently healthy people in the prime of their lives were suddenly overcome, and within an hour could become helpless with fevers, delirium, and chills. Severe headache, pains in muscles and joints, hair loss, acute congestion, and accompanying temperatures of 101° to 105° occurred. The most unusual pathological finding was massive pulmonary edema and/or hemorrhage. This pneumonia was a unique viral type-a patient could be convalescing one day and dead the next. Those who survived the flu often died of secondary bacterial pneumonia.