The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Boston refused to close schools during the 1918 flu. Then children began to die.

A girl stands next to her sister lying in bed during the 1918 flu pandemic. The girl became so worried she telephoned the Red Cross Home Service for help. (Library of Congress/AP) (Library of Congress; The Crowley Company/AP)

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.

Chaos coast to coast as a school year like no other launches

“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.”

This philosophy was supported by Boston Health Commissioner William Woodward. Even as Boston continued to see record rates of new infections, Woodward found no evidence that school closures were necessary. This didn’t stop nearby districts in Sharon, Milford and Needham from closing due to cases of infected students.

On Sept. 18, 17 new cases of infection were reported in Boston schools, bringing the total up to 50. By this point, local public schools were reporting that attendance rates had dropped by 40 percent among high school students, while 30 percent of younger students were absent.

In this excerpt from a 2010 documentary, Americans share what it was like to live through the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million worldwide. (Video: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Commissioner Woodward continued to refuse to say that there was anything new about the current strain of flu that had struck the city. As Boston again witnessed record-breaking daily deaths, Woodward assured parents that their children were safe. He pointed to the fact that no students at Boston’s public schools had died of the flu. That evening, the death of Anna Bloomfield was reported. She was only 8 years old.

Bloomfield was soon joined by 17-year-old student Elton Isaacs. Woodward urged the public not to panic.

“The conditions won’t improve through worry. On the contrary, they are likely to become worse,” Woodward said, as unfounded rumors surfaced that German U-boats had intentionally introduced the disease to American shores.

Following these deaths, Lewis R. Sullivan, executive councilor for the governor, announced at the State House that he would call on the Boston School Committee to close schools until the epidemic faded. Four of his children were infected at the time.

Arguing his case, Sullivan pointed out that officials had closed schools the previous year under much less dire circumstances.

“Health authorities agree that there is no disease so contagious as influenza, and the number of deaths that have recently occurred seem to indicate that there are few more dangerous,” he said. “Last year, the School Committee closed the schools in order to save coal, and it seems to me that they should now be closed in order to protect the health of the little pupils that don’t know how to protect their own health.”

Sullivan’s fears proved well-founded as the following days brought reports of the deaths of four young children in his own neighborhood in Boston. Despite numerous suburban school districts closing and infection rates growing, Boston officials refused to order the city’s children to remain at home.

That was until Gov. Samuel McCall convened a discussion with state health officials and medical groups and urged local leaders across Massachusetts to enter lockdown. In preparation of an official order, Superintendent Thompson declared all Boston schools closed on Sept. 25.

Teachers were assured they’d maintain their regular pay during the closure as long as they served as nurse staff for flu patients. In early October, school closures were extended by two weeks, partially out of need for continued medical assistance from out-of-work educators.

Over the first two weeks of October, the number of flu-related deaths in Boston that season had doubled. Despite this, daily rates of infections finally appeared to be on the decline after several weeks of shutdown.

On Oct. 21 — after just three weeks of closures — Boston opened its doors once again, and massive crowds flooded the entertainment districts.

“The happy, mirthful little children will be allowed to go to school and to play in the parks and go to the movies and enjoy their sodas and ice creams again," wrote one Boston Globe reporter. “The ‘glooms’ will be dispelled wherever they appear.”

With this grand reopening, Woodward declared the epidemic over. A claim he would continue to make well into the new year.

Throughout December, criticism was lobbed at state and local health officials. State Health Commissioner Eugene Kelley was scolded for not intervening with local agencies when the epidemic began to manifest in Boston’s harbors. Many in Boston believed Woodward mismanaged the city’s approach to the outbreak. This public outcry nearly resulted in Woodward finding his entire agency restructured, but he survived with his job intact.

Starting the new year, Woodward published a nursery rhyme intended to urge wariness in Boston’s schoolchildren as they returned to school once again under a new normal:

“Mary had a little cold, that started in her head. And everywhere that Mary went, that cold was sure to spread. It followed her to school one day (There wasn’t any rule); It made the children cough and sneeze, to have that cold in school. The teacher tried to drive it out; she tried hard, but — kerchoo! It didn’t do a bit of good, for teacher caught it too.”

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