‘Your cold … is now a public menace’

The fall of 1918 was a lonely and terrifying time in St. Louis. For most of October through December, public gatherings were forbidden: Schools, movie theaters, saloons and dance halls were shuttered; funerals and sporting events were canceled; even churches were ordered to suspend their Sunday services. The enforced isolation was a desperate attempt to curb the spread of influenza – referred to as Spanish flu – which already had sickened millions of people around the globe and ultimately would take 50 million lives worldwide.

Stories of the devastation appeared on the front pages of newspapers nationwide. So when 500 soldiers at Jefferson Barracks, located just south of St. Louis, came down with fevers and coughs in early October, St. Louis Mayor Henry Kiel and Health Commissioner Max Starkloff swiftly shut down much of the city.

Their drastic action undoubtedly saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives. St. Louis lost about 2,900 people to flu over those three months, a dreadful blow to a population of less than 800,000. But Cleveland and Boston, then similar in size to St. Louis, lost many more; the virus killed 4,400 in Cleveland and 4,800 in Boston.

Historian Christopher Alan Gordon of the Missouri Historical Society will tell the story of the 1918 influenza pandemic in St. Louis at the 66th Historia Medica lecture at 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17. The talk is free and open to the public. The lecture will be given in the King Center on the seventh floor of the Bernard Becker Medical Library at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The Historia Medica lectures, organized and hosted by the the Center for History Of Medicine and the Becker Medical Library, bring together experts in medicine and the humanities to tell the story of health, disease and medicine through time. In memory of the 1918 influenza epidemic, the 2018-2019 series focuses on infectious diseases. Subsequent talks in the monthly series will address sexually transmitted diseases on Feb. 28, the vaccine controversy on Mar. 14, and the history, present and future of infectious disease on Apr. 25. All lectures are open to all with no charge.

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