The Pandemic Then: A Steamer Brings the Spanish Flu to New York Harbor, 1918

[Editor’s Note: As one can see from this article, which appeared in the New York Times in August 1918, the century may change, but human beings remain the same. The same initial reassurances devolve into alarm, and the same debate about when to tell the truth.]

August 1918: A Steamer Arrives in New York Harbor

On Tuesday, a Norwegian steamer arrived at Quarantine and her doctor recorded nine cases of influenza on board. There had been three deaths from pneumonia, following influenza, at sea. Certain cases transferred from the boat to the hospital were classified as pneumonia, “probably brought on by Spanish influenza,” says the physician in charge.

According to Dr. COFER, the Health Officer of the port, the surgeon of the steamer did not use the adjective “Spanish” in reference to the cases reported on the boat. How ingenuous!

At Quarantine Wednesday morning it was said that the ship had been passed because there was no quarantine on influenza at this port. On Wednesday night Quarantine said that the ship had been passed because her surgeon reported that the sick people on [the ship] had recovered.

No Reason for Alarm?

Apparently, the health officers soon became doubtful of the wisdom of letting the ship come up. Yesterday, Health Department Inspectors and Port Inspectors went to Quarantine to examine members of the crew and passengers who had not already passed quarantine.

To some extent this was locking the stable door after the horse had been stolen. It may be true, as Dr. COPELAND says, that “the public has no reason for alarm, since, through the protection afforded by our most efficient Quarantine Station and the constant vigilance of the city’s health authorities, all the protection that sanitary science can give is assured.”

There may be doubts as to the protection accorded by our most efficient Quarantine Station and vigilant city health authorities if, after so many thousands of cases of Spanish Influenza in Spain, in Germany, in France, in England, in Cuba, it was only yesterday that the question of laying a quarantine against Spanish influenza was taken up by the protectors.

Only the Sickly and Elderly Need Worry?

“You haven’t heard of our doughboys getting it, have you?” said Dr. COPELAND. “You bet you haven’t, and you won’t.”

The theory is that few but persons badly nourished, of low vitality, are attacked by this virulent form of influenza.

Naturally, the weakest are the best customers of disease. But the British and French soldiers in France, some or many of whom are said to have had this influenza. are well-fed.

The people of England. where it has raged considerably, are well-fed. The people of both Spain and Cuba are enjoying remarkable prosperity, and presumably their diet is in proportion, if always soberer and more frugal than ours.

Does the Public Want to Hear the Truth?

There is no necessity for alarm, and nobody is going to be alarmed; but perhaps the health authorities of the port and the city have been a little too eager to reassure the public, which prefers the truth to official demulcents.

And, possibly, those authorities have been too easy or incredulous in regard to our Spanish visitor.

Photo: New York Harbor, 1918