WSW: The 1918 Flu's Impact on Kalamazoo

Nov 19, 2017

The global flu pandemic of 1918 still stands out for its deadliness. It killed as many as 50 million people, which is far beyond the death toll of World War I. While no place was immune to the devastation, City of Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro says some communities, including Kalamazoo, fared somewhat better than others.

Ferraro will present her research on the flu’s local impact on Sunday at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum at 1:30 in the afternoon.

The flu came in three waves, Ferraro says. The first was relatively mild, but the second two were very dangerous. At the height of the second wave in the fall of 1918, Ferraro says that life in Kalamazoo changed.

“The schools - the movies - completely shut down,” as the city tried to stop the virus, she says, though grocery stores remained open.

“Streetcars cut back on their number of runs because they just didn’t need, there weren’t as many people out and about. Churches were not allowed to meet. Funerals could have no more than 10 people in attendance, including the minister.

“And they tended to be in the open air whenever possible, so visitations didn’t happen. All the things that would normally go with a death just weren’t happening.”

Just when that wave had died down, on November 11 World War I ended. Everyone came out to celebrate the armistice, and that touched off a third round of infection.

But Ferraro says Kalamazoo’s health officials handled the outbreak competently, and were effective at getting people the information they needed to take care of themselves. She says it also helped that Kalamazoo had established a chapter of the Red Cross a year earlier, in 1917.

“They had mobilized people to do things like bandage rolling and taking home nursing classes,” she says.

“So when the epidemic came around, there was already an organization in place that had been talking to each other for over a year at that point and they were ready to mobilize and to do something about it.”

Kalamazoo had about 2.5 deaths per thousand, which Ferraro says is "slightly on the low side" of the national average.

"We did pretty good," she says.