Penn History

Penn and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

By Mira Shetty, University Archives Summer Research Fellow, 2018, with J.J. Ahern

Panoramic view of the University of Pennsylvania campus, 1920

During the summer of 1918, an influenza outbreak, now known to be a strain of H1N1, spread across Europe and Asia. In Spain alone 80% of the population was affected. At first, the “Spanish Influenza” seemed like a distant concern for Philadelphians. However, with American troops returning to the US from fighting in Europe, the illness soon appeared in Boston and Philadelphia before spreading across the country. On September 19, 1918, flu arrived at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and within days, 600 sailors had caught the disease. Nine days later the Fourth Liberty Loan Campaign rally brought 200,000 Philadelphians together in the streets. By October 1 there were 635 new cases. Quickly, Philadelphia became the city with the highest influenza death toll in the US.

This pandemic killed over 50 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1922 and infected roughly one third of the world’s population. In the US, about 675,000 people died while 22 million caught the disease. Pennsylvania, one of the states that was hit the hardest, faced over 60,000 deaths. Philadelphia lost about 12,000 people and had about 47,000 reported cases in just four weeks. In just six months, there were about 16,000 deaths and half a million cases of influenza in Philadelphia.

A combination of factors caused Philadelphia to be hit especially hard by the influenza epidemic. The city already had a population of about 1.7 million, and there were an additional 300,000 wartime workers. Many people, specifically poor and working-class immigrants and African Americans, lived and worked in crowded, unhygienic conditions. Doctors and public health officials did not understand the cause or the cure of the disease, nor did they have the necessary medical advances to properly combat it. Further, because they did not understand much about the influenza epidemic, public health officials underestimated its severity and overestimated their ability to keep it contained. Finally, more than a quarter of Philadelphia doctors and nurses had been called away to work in the war effort, which put a strain on every hospital in Philadelphia, even before the influenza epidemic hit.

The University of Pennsylvania, though not as badly hit as other parts of Philadelphia, was still significantly affected by the influenza epidemic. Statewide and citywide bans on large public gatherings postponed or cancelled many University events. A number of students, faculty, and alumni contracted the disease, and many volunteered at hospitals to help fight the epidemic. However, many of the steps University officials took to confront the epidemic helped to mitigate its impact on campus.