There was a time not long ago at the end of the First World War, when another killer virus stalked planet Earth. The book World History by AMSCO describes its beginnings:
War-related deaths continued past Armistice Day in the form of an influenza epidemic. Under peacetime circumstances, a virulent disease might devastate a concentrated group of people in a particular region.
However in 1918, millions of soldiers were returning home as the war ended. As they did, they had contact with loved ones and friends, thereby facilitating the spread of the flu. In 1919, the epidemic became a pandemic (a disease prevalent over a large area or the entire world), killing 20 million in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. India alone may have lost 7 million to the disease.
There were many Americans who believed, however, that if there was one city in one nation that could beat this relentless plague, it was Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. This is the little known story of the American capital and its response to the first pandemic of the 20th century.
In September 1918, the flu, at first thought to be just a soldiers’ disease, began to strike the District. In Washington, "A History of the Capital, 1800 to 1950," C.M. Green recalled that: by September 21, it had hit the overcrowded capital with a force that broke down the reporting service and swamped doctors with desperately ill and dying patients.
Both Commissioner Gardiner and General Knight were stricken and Board of Commissioners President Brownlow and the new health officer, Dr. Fowler, closed the theaters, the movie houses, the churches, and most of the shops, persuaded the school board to close the schools, and with the cooperation of the Visiting Nurses Association, the Red Cross, and a volunteer motor corps, opened nursing centers in four or five schoolhouses. But the epidemic spread. Physicians and nurses caught the disease. Every hospital bed in the city was filled. At one point, George Washington Hospital, one of the largest, had every bed occupied and not a single nurse on duty.
With half the trolley motormen on the sick list, street-car service was utterly disrupted. And as the death toll mounted, there were neither coffins nor gravediggers enough to meet the emergency.
The first death in D.C. was John Clore, a White railroad brakeman who died at Sibley Hospital. The Public Health Service opened a temporary hospital at 612 F Street, N.W. The disease even made its way into the White House where President Wilson and several staffers were stricken.
African Americans residents of the city were initially given little thought. A small Jim Crow medical facility was finally set up for them in October at the Armstrong School at First and P Streets, N.W. A tiny contingent of Black nurses was recruited around this time to address the medical needs of returning Black doughboys. Among these women was Aileen Cole Stewart of Seattle, Washington, who had been trained at the Howard University School of Nursing.
The authorities instructed citizens to stay off streetcars and to postpone meetings and public gatherings. Churches were closed. Businesses were placed on staggered hours although playground hours were expanded. There was debate on the wearing of masks, a doctor, H.S. Mustard, did not believe in them, calling them “an absurdity.”