When L.A. Fought the Pandemic and Won

Glen Creason, Librarian III, History & Genealogy Department,
1918 Poster about influenza
1918 poster about influenza and how to avoid it

It was a time when Angelenos should have been preparing to head out into the streets waving victory flags and knocking back belts of whiskey before the commencement of the dreaded Volstead act. The War to End All Wars was coming to a close and the doughboys were getting ready to return from Europe victorious. Unfortunately, the boys brought something else back on the wings of war: Influenza. The “Spanish Flu” was highly contagious and quickly overwhelmed health facilities and wiped out a huge part of the young people of the lost generation, a staggering 50 million lives; estimates range from 17 to 100. One fifth of the population were affected and it happened so quickly graveyards were unable to dig graves fast enough. The pattern was unusual since this strain killed those in the prime of life instead of the very old or very young as is typical. The flu had a lengthy, difficult sick bed lasting up to six days that left patients so weakened they died of secondary infections like pneumonia or even malnutrition. The disease took hold and spread among the troops fighting in Europe around January 1918 and spread fast due to poor sanitary conditions and a lack of proper medical care.

newspaper headline
The Normal Hill Center that issued the poster was the part of the Normal School buildings dedicated to government in the War effort on the site of today's Central Library. Broadside on Influenza from Normal Hill Center, November 1918

The first cases in the U.S. appeared in March at Camp Funston in Kansas in late spring and into Los Angeles on a training ship filled with 400 soldiers already infected with the virus in September 1918. When the men came ashore for leave influenza spread quickly and the fight was on to contain an epidemic. Los Angeles had their own Department of Health lead by the very capable City Health Commissioner Dr. Luther M. Powers who immediately opened three hospitals to treat infected patients. The first was on Yale Street with just 50 beds. Another was set up on Mt. Washington and the third in an old Women’s Clubhouse in San Pedro. The City Council acted quickly and ok’d money for nurses and facilities. By October, sick patients started showing up and one week later there were 680 active cases. Mayor Frederick Woodman put a quarantine in place, closing schools, theaters and public gatherings. A “stay at home” week was proclaimed and streetcars and taxis were disinfected. Work schedules were adjusted to avoid crowding and the many newspapers of L.A. posted story after story about fighting the flu. Yet, stores and restaurants stayed open and the ban on theaters was fought off by the Theater Owners Association who had that measure rescinded in December. Over 7,000 buildings were completely shut down and the schools eventually stayed closed for 4 months (ugh!). Health inspectors combed the city and acted as flu police but also good Samaritans who ran errands, delivered groceries and medicine to citizens. A health advisory board kept many places closed for six weeks but despite all efforts 3,500 Angelenos died in the pandemic. In the two years of battling influenza here 20% of all deaths in Los Angeles were due to the disease. Despite the fatalities Los Angeles was called “the safest big city in America” for the simple reason that the citizens did what the government suggested and actually practiced social isolation. Angelenos accepted the restrictions and took them as part of the war effort even after the miseries over there ended on November 11, 1918.

A strange side-effect of the influenza pandemic was the fear of gatherings which included public transportation. At the same time mass-production of automobiles was ramping up in Detroit and streets that had been filled with horses and horse manure were now clogging with Model T Fords. While there had been street guides before this E-Z Guide made it easy for motorists to figure out distances just by moving the arrow and lining up departure and arrival points. Those fearing the deadly virus might find a way to purchase a car and travel anywhere on the E-Z Guide. The map was ingeniously made to fold up and be kept in a jacket or purse ready to do battle with the first L.A. traffic of the automotive age.

ez map of LA
E-Z Guide Map of Los Angeles California with Patent Indicator Showing at a Glance the Exact Location of Banks, Apartment Houses, Depots, Railway Offices, Stores and Street Locations, Guaranty Trust and Savings Bank. Publisher Fred B. Bain Inc.,1918