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Looking Back at the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

September 22, 2020

Eric Stanley, Associate Director and Curator of History



The historic influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 has recently received more attention for obvious reasons. The experiences of that trying time echo across the decades, resonating with the events of today and the threat of the coronavirus. 

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Spanish Flu, named for the country where it was first identified and incorrectly believed to have originated, spread rapidly through Europe and to the United States. Assisted by the churning movement of people during World War I and close living conditions such as those of soldiers in camps, the virus spread widelySoldiers returning from France carried the contagion to Army camps on the East Coastas the first illnesses were noted in March of 1918. 

Santa Rosa’s Company E at Fort Mason in 1917. The movement and crowded living arrangements for soldiers contributed to the spread of influenza. (MSC collection).

Northern California 

By October 1918the influenza had entered a second wave that was infecting military camps throughout the nation, including Mare Island in California. In San Francisco, Army personnel were quarantined, schools and places of public entertainment were closed, and the wearing of masks became law. Authorities imposed a $5 fine on people in public without masks, the equivalent of $85 today. In November, the people of the Bay Area were told the flu was waning and they could abandon their masks. Unfortunately, a third wave of the flu hit in December 1918 and renewed closures and mask requirements brought objections from private citizens and business ownersThe mask law and closures were reinstated through February 1Consistent social distancing measures would have cut the death rate by 90 percent, according to some estimatesSan Francisco ended up losing 673 people per 100,000 residents.  


Sonoma County 

Just weeks after the flu appeared in San Francisco, there were 150 people ill in Santa Rosa. The first cases spread in places with cramped living conditions. The children at the Salvation Army’s Golden Gate Industrial Farm and Orphanage at Lytton, north of Healdsburg, became ill at a rapid rate until about 150 of the 250 children were sick. Helen Groul, a 10-year-old orphan, was the first in Sonoma County to die from the flu. Ultimately, 175 people would perish from the influenza in the county, out of a population of about 50,000.

NSGW Drum Corps celebrating end of World War I in Sebastopol, 1918. The drum corps members and the boy in the foreground are wearing influenza masks. (Sonoma County Library Collection).

Heroic Efforts 

While it can be distressing to examine the tragedy of 1918 and 1919, it can also be inspiring to consider the way in which people came together to combat that historic influenza outbreak. Much like today, the heroic efforts of many people were required to combat the virus. 

An ambulance covered with roses with Red Cross nurses appeared in the 1917 Rose Parade. (MSC Collection).

Nurses may have been the most heroic. In the wake of World War I, there was a desperate shortage of nurses. It was their direct care for the sick that was in the greatest demand and presented the highest, personal risk. In Santa Rosa, the call for help went out when a lack of caretakers and health workers became increasingly problematic due to the rising number of influenza cases. But it wasn’t just trained nurses that responded. Jessie Wheeden, the supervising nurse at a temporary hospital in Santa Rosa established in early January 1919, praised volunteers who were business college students pressed into nursing duties, as well as teachers and housewives who made meals for the sick. 

Influenza Ward, Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1918. (Public Domain, Library of Congress).

One Hero of the Influenza Pandemic: Frances O’Meara, Believe it or Not! 

Frances L. O’Meara, a longtime teacher in Santa Rosa, was among the women who volunteered to help during the influenza crisis-but she did more than cook meals. You might recognize her name. In 1918, a former pupil of O’Meara’s from Santa Rosa High School, Robert Leroy Ripley, began publishing his cartoon of obscure sports facts and oddities from across the globe called “Believe It or Not!” Over a decade later, after gaining wealth and widespread fame, Ripley credited Miss O’Meara for encouraging him to illustrate stories and poems in her English class when he struggled with writingRipley believed her encouragement had put him on the path to fortune and fame. This testimonial and the success of her former student would become the main reason that O’Meara’s name was widely remembered. 

Frances O’Meara and Robert Ripley in Santa Rosa in 1936. (Sonoma County Library Collection).

Looking back, Frances O’Meara deserves credit for quite a lot more. On October 17, 1918, she was listed among the contributors to a fund to help the orphanage at Lytton, where so many children had become ill. Her donation, the largest one listed, was $500which would be nearly $7,500 today. In November, O’Meara was appointed head of the Woman’s Army for War Service in Santa Rosa. The article in the Press Democrat from November 9, 1918 notes that O’Meara named four colonels and twenty captains to “handle emergency matters in Santa Rosa.” Even as the World War was heading toward the armistice only days later, Santa Rosa was gearing up for another conflict. An article appearing just below the announcement of O’Meara’s appointment stated that the “validity of the health ordinance prohibiting public gatherings during the epidemic of Spanish Influenza was upheld by the state supreme court…” Emergency matters in Santa Rosa revolved around the influenza.

The groundbreaking of the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse in 1908. The clubhouse would serve as a Red Cross temporary hospital during the influenza pandemic. Frances O’Meara’s mother, also named Frances, appears near the center of the group holding the large shovel. (MSC collection).

Frances O’Meara was a longtime member and officer of the Saturday Afternoon Club. Founded in 1894 as a women’s group seeking the betterment of its members and the surrounding community, the club had involved itself in everything from the call for public playgrounds, establishment of a county library, hospital improvements, and advocacy for women’s suffrage. In 1908, they had constructed a clubhouse in Santa Rosa on 10th Street. During World War I, women met there to make surgical bandages for military hospitals. Frances O’Meara played a key role in establishing the clubhouse as a temporary Red Cross Hospital for influenza patients in early 1919. The temporary hospital was supervised by a professional nurse but relied on volunteer caretakers, including numerous teachers who cooked meals for patients in the “domestic science room” at Santa Rosa High School.  

In a hopeful article on January 19, 1919, the newspaper noted that the Red Cross Hospital’s job appeared to be approaching completion and patients numbered “only 17 and all were reported as doing very well.” Influenza cases would rise and fall in waves, with some cases even as late as 1920, but it was the care and dedication of people like Frances O’Meara that helped guide Sonoma County through the heart of the pandemic.

Office staff of George P. McNear's Mill at the corner of B Street and Petaluma Boulevard South wearing masks, November 18, 1918. (Petaluma History Museum and Library Collection).

Petaluma’s 1918 Influenza Battle 

Contributed by John Sheehy


In June of 1918, the government deployed Petaluma’s mayor, a saddle maker, to Portland, Oregon, to run a large saddle plant for the U.S. Cavalry fighting in World War I. City councilman Dr. Harry S. Gossage, a prominent local surgeon, was chosen to fill the mayor’s remaining term. Aside from a minor deficit in the city’s budget, Gossage’s mayoral challenges appeared relatively routine. On the horizon, however, signs of a larger threat loomed; one, it turned out, Gossage was uniquely qualified for. 

The good news that American forces fighting in Europe had achieved their first major victory was accompanied by word from Spain that a deadly influenza was spreading across the continent. The influenza soon spread to U.S. military bases and by midsummer, Petaluma newspapers were running obituaries of local enlisted men stationed in Army camps out East and in the Midwest. 

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington D.C. during the influenza pandemic of 1918. (Public Domain, Library of Congress).

In mid-September, as Allied forces began their final offensive of the war in Europe, a San Francisco man returning from a visit to Chicago brought back the disease. Although he was immediately quarantined in a hospital, by the first week of October influenza had spread to a couple hundred people in San Francisco. A week later, the pandemic reached Sonoma County. 

As local newspapers began running obituaries of former Petaluma residents killed by the disease in other parts of the Bay Area, Dr. Gossage, who also chaired the city’s board of health, held a special meeting of the city council on the epidemic. Although no cases of influenza had been reported in Petaluma, the mayor raised the issue of a general closure to get ahead of it. 

Many feared such an order would do more harm than good, inducing panic and crippling the economy, and ultimately proving ineffective. Others argued it was probably too late to take such action, as Santa Rosa already had sixty reported cases, and California overall 19,000 cases. 

Advertisement that appeared in the Press Democrat 1919 noting the Board of Health closure of theaters, but also encouraging customers to keep an eye out for "Coming Attractions.”

On October 19th, California’s State Board of Health ordered the closure of all theaters, dance halls, and schools, along with a ban on public gatherings. Churches were exempted, although it was strongly recommended they either cancel services or hold them in the open air, which is what St. Vincent’s Catholic Church did two days later. 

Despite the closures and gatherings ban, the centerpiece of the state’s crusade against the influenza was the face mask. Initially, a mandatory mask order was issued only to health care workers and members of households where there were cases of influenza. But within days of the closure order, nearly everyone on the streets of Petaluma was wearing a mask. “Sewsters” at the Red Cross were busy making them for anyone who wanted one, with prices capped at ten cents each ($2 in today’s currency) to hinder profiteering. People were advised to boil their masks once a day for sanitary purposes, and detailed instructions were issued in the newspapers for those who wished to sew their own masks. 

The influenza arrived in Petaluma the third week of October, quickly claiming the life of Joseph Biaggi, a Swiss-Italian farmworker, as its first casualty. On November 2nd, Mayor Gossage issued a mandatory mask order for anyone venturing outside, as well as to merchants and their clerks, and people working in offices. 

Red Cross volunteers, 1918. (APIC / Getty Images).

Wearing a mask immediately became a symbol of wartime patriotism. The Red Cross bluntly declared that “the man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.” It worked for most residents, but there were still many slackers who flaunted the order by wearing their masks beneath their noses or else around their neck while smoking. Petaluma police began arresting and fining these slackers $1 for the first offense, and $5 for the second ($20 and $100 in today’s currency). 

Advertisement that appeared in the Press Democrat 1918-1919.

Due to a shortage of nurses—many of them were away, serving in the war effort—the health system was quickly overwhelmed, as was the telephone system, which doctors, nurses, and druggists depended upon for communicating with patients. Things became worse when a number of women operators at the local switchboard came down with the flu. The Petaluma Argus issued an appeal to women to refrain from “gossiping on the line,” so as to reserve the phone system for those critically ill. 

The declaration of Armistice Day on November 11th, marking the end of World War I, sent a record number of people wearing masks into the streets of Petaluma for a celebratory parade. Two weeks later, as the local epidemic subsided, Mayor Gossage suspended the mandatory mask order, authorizing the opening of schools, theaters, dance halls, and churches just in time for Thanksgiving. The next day, a large crowd gathered on Main Street near the town clock and celebrated by burning their masks in a large metal tub. 

The reprieve proved to be only temporary. Another wave of influenza came roaring back after Christmas, with 243 new cases and 35 deaths reported in San Francisco. People were again warned to avoid crowds, and for a few weeks Santa Rosa reinstated its mask order. In Petaluma, an outbreak of influenza cases followed in April of 1919, forcing the closure of Petaluma schools for the remainder of the school year. 

By that time, 305,856 cases of influenza had been reported in California, and 20,904 deaths, making for a ratio of 68 deaths per thousand cases. 175 of the deaths had occurred in Sonoma County. 

In May, with the influenza appearing to be over, an exhausted Dr. Gossage, who had balanced his mayoral duties with those of treating his patients, announced he would not run for reelection that summer, but instead devote his time to his family and medical practice. 

The following winter however, the cold weather brought a fourth and final wave of the disease. Although its mortality rate was half that of the previous winter’s influenza, Petaluma was hit harder than other cities its size, reporting 319 cases and 5 deaths by February of 1920. The city health board issued another ban on gatherings and closed all theaters, dance halls, schools, and churches. 

To its dismay, the board also reported that slackers continued to hold dinners, card parties, and social gatherings in defiance of the ban, despite the many tragedies the town had experienced over the past year. 

Advertisement that appeared in the Press Democrat 1918-1919.

Did an earlier wave of the virus hit in 1916? 

Viruses still present us with many mysteries. While the so-called “Spanish Influenza epidemic seemed to emerge in 1918, the most active year for the flu in the United States since the 1890s was actually 1916. At the time, scientists did not have the benefit of equipment that could identify viruses. Microscopes did not allow for the direct observation of viruses like H1N1 until decades later. Instead, scientists looked at bacterial causes. Today, scientists are much better equipped to study viruses- even those of the past. Researchers using historic documentation, genetic evidence, and the unusual patterns of the “Spanish Flu,” have been working on the idea that the H1N1 virus that caused the pandemic was present in the United States as early as 1915. 

Could the H1N1 flu have been present in California earlier than previously thought? The Press Democrat newspaper from 1916 contains numerous references to “La Grippe,” a general term for the flu used for years before and after 1916. When recognized or noted member of the community became ill, the newspaper mentioned their names. For example, the January 3, 1916 edition of the Press Democrat carried a note that, “well-known artist Elizabeth Hoen…is suffering from an attack of la grippe.” Numerous similar articles appear in 1916. 

Burials in the Chanate Cemetery-- the burial location of the poor in Santa Rosa-- suddenly peaked in 1916. They jumped from 26 the previous year to 48 in 1916. In 1917 and 1918, they sank back to 34 and 20, respectively. Given that the influenza epidemic struck in 1918, the spike in burials at that early date is somewhat surprising. Was it the same illness that would later be called Spanish Influenza? It may be impossible to know, but the large jump in burials at the Chanate Cemetery raises the issue. 


Chanate Cemetery statistics courtesy of Jeremy Nichols.

Coronavirus illustration (Public Domain, CDC)

100 Years Later 

A great many parallels can be seen between the 1918 Influenza pandemic and the Coronavirus, including the spread of disease in crowded and cramped places, debate over closures and mask requirements, and the mysteries associated with viral pandemics. But by looking back at the flu in Sonoma County, we can also see the heroic efforts to prevent the spread of the virus and to care for the sick and take inspiration from those efforts.   

While science has advanced significantly, many mysteries remain surrounding these rapidly spreading viruses. In 2008, researchers discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: a group of genes that allowed the virus to weaken a victim’s lungs, making them vulnerable to bacterial pneumonia. No doubt, similar discoveries will shed light on COVID-19 and help in the development of treatments.  

Since 1918, there have been several other influenza pandemics, including from 1957 to 1958, and another from 1968 to 1969. Neither outbreak was as deadly, but still killed tens of thousands of Americans. More than 12,000 Americans perished during the H1N1 (or “swine flu”) pandemic that occurred from 2009 to 2010.   

Each of these more recent pandemics brings renewed interest in the “Spanish Flu.” Sometimes called the “forgotten pandemic,” the 1918-1919 Influenza outbreak was overshadowed by WWI and hidden by news blackouts and inconsistent record keeping. But by not forgetting and studying events of the past, we continue to accumulate knowledge and information that might serve us in combatting viruses like COVID-19.