Covering the Spanish Flu

11 March 2019

Winter weather and the flu have become synonymous for Americans. As temperatures drop, intake of Vitamin C goes up, along with the phrase “I just can’t get sick right now.” Believe it or not, the flu can strike during any season, but cold temperatures force people into contained spaces where germs can spread more easily. Likely due to the polar vortex, February marked the highest numbers of reported flu cases in South Dakota. Typically, medical professionals warn about the flu’s extreme dangers for the very young and the elderly, but some outbreaks pose risks to all ages. This winter marks one hundred years since the 1918–1919 outbreak of the Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the world’s population.

Although the origins of the H1N1 strain that caused the pandemic are unknown, Spain’s government, as one of the few neutral countries during World War I, allowed unlimited media coverage of the disease, which eternally connected the country with the outbreak. Taking hold in the last year of World War I, the flu wreaked havoc among soldiers in the trenches who then spread the virus to civilians. An initial wave of deaths occurred in the summer of 1918. The second and third waves of the disease, from late 1918 until summer 1919, caused the most suffering. An estimated fifty million people worldwide died, more than five times the number of troops killed in the Great War.

South Dakotans did not escape the terrible illness and many local newspapers ignored the government restrictions on media coverage of the pandemic. Papers across the state kept readers up to date on Governor Peter Norbeck’s battle with the flu in late 1918 and reports in April 1919 included the deaths of three children from one family in Ree Heights. Although most articles had a serious tone, some relayed the strange ways Americans fought or talked about the disease. From jokes told in poor taste to misleading advertisements, these examples below reflect how Americans persisted during the devastating outbreak.

Michael Burns


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Watertown Saturday News, 28 Nov. 1918

 

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Madison Daily Leader, 11 Apr. 1919

 

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Milbank Herald-Advance, 3 Oct. 1919

 

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Milbank Herald-Advance, 8 Nov. 1918

 


Photographer Gustav M. Johnson captured an image of an unidentified man reading the local newspaper next to his two horses near Philip, South Dakota, in 1910. South Dakota State Historical Society