Boston Refused to Close Schools During the 1918 Flu. Then Children Began to DieBreaking News
tags: schools, public health, pandemics, influenza
The flu was just beginning to ravage Boston when its 110,000 children headed back to school in September 1918.
New cases of what everyone called the Spanish flu had reached Boston’s ports, and the illness had spread to more than 300 sailors in less than a week. The cases were consistent: sudden onset of chills, then a fever, headache, backache, red eyes, pains and aches. Even those who managed to survive often succumbed to pneumonia in the days that followed.
The Massachusetts State Department of Health warned residents to take measures to protect themselves, according to a Sept. 6 story in the Boston Globe.
“Unless precautions are taken, the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population of the city,” declaredJohn S. Hitchcock, head of the department’s division of communicable diseases.
Official orders were issued to prohibit spitting in public places. People were told to avoid crowds, and if illness struck, “try to surround yourself with a wall of isolation.” But Navy officials, who were preoccupied with fighting World War I, downplayed the severity of the initial outbreak in local ports. Boston’s students returned to their classrooms.
In mid-September, William H. Devine, director of medical inspection in Boston public schools, reported eight cases of the flu among local students. But in language that echoes the current debate about how schools should respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Devine argued against closings.
“The children are actually better off in school than at home. They are inspected every day by physicians and nurses, and any suspicious case is immediately sent home with orders to remain in bed until a diagnosis has been made,” he said. “There is nothing alarming in the situation. The disease is prevalent among grown persons, and it is natural it should appear among children. There will probably be more cases, but there is no school epidemic.”