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The Archivist Files: How LA handled the 1918 flu pandemic

St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty Oct. 1918 during the influenza pandemic.
St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty Oct. 1918 during the influenza pandemic.
Library of Congress

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The recent outbreak of measles that started at Disneyland and the ongoing debate about vaccination reminded me of a pandemic that scarred Los Angeles almost 100 years ago. The historic evidence is preserved at the L.A. City Archive, inside Box B-1059. It has the details of how L.A. city officials and its citizens coped with the great influenza outbreak of 1918.

The city’s Department of Health released an annual report beginning in the 1870s covering food, sanitation, health inspections in the city jail, even advocating public toilets for the indigent population. Every illness and death was recorded as the city size and population increased over time.

The department was overseen by Dr. Luther M. Powers — the Dr. Jonathan Fielding of his time — and he was the man everyone turned to when the flu hit. Powers said, “This disease was introduced into Los Angeles by an infected training ship after September 15, 1918 and also from infected tourists.”

The Health Department was unprepared for the first patients arriving at the General Receiving Hospital a week later, but soon, two emergency hospitals were staffed and equipped in San Pedro and Mount Washington.


(Unidentified newspaper headline, 1918.)


Local residents complained about the close proximity of the flu to their homes, but there was something in the emergency measures for everybody to hate. On October 10, 1918, the city council passed Ordinance 38522 imposing a quarantine of schools, theaters and other public gatherings. Poolrooms were closed, and public funerals were banned. Factory schedules were staggered to prevent crowding on streetcars.

(Bowling alley and billiard parlor on the Santa Monica Pier, 1917.  Credit: LAPL/Security Pacific National Bank Collection)

As you’d expect, business interests pushed back. The Theater Owners Association petitioned the Council to re-open the theaters and require audiences to wear face masks instead. The Health Department tried to find a middle ground. For instance, the quarantine meant cafés couldn’t have live music. But could they play phonographs? Were music teachers allowed to give private lessons when the schools were closed? One official said, “We sought at all times to avoid discrimination and to enforce the ban with as little discomfort and financial loss as possible.”

A drop in flu cases in early December allowed a conditional rescission of the quarantine, but it was reinstated within days when a new surge of infections filled the hospitals again. It was up to the police and badge wielding health inspectors to protect the public. They were the ones who inspected both streetcars and taxi cabs before and after their disinfection.

The inspectors monitored passengers in the railway station and separated people who appeared to be sick into quarantine. They also ran errands in over a hundred neighborhoods because residents couldn’t do it themselves. They were the unlucky ones who were under quarantine in their own homes – unable to enter or leave for any reason.

In total, 29 people were taken to court over violations such as leaving their homes during the quarantine or failure to report an illness. A $25 fine and up to 30 days in jail was possible.

The statistics in the quarantine report sum up the epidemic and the damage it did. Between October 1918 and July 1919, over 13,000 buildings were locked down, confining over 50,000 Angelenos. The average casualty of the flu was a married white male between 20 and 45. The total number of flu-related deaths was 3,482, out of a reported total of over 57,000 reported cases — a number Dr. Powers believed to be greatly underreported.

Flu was the cause in about 20 percent of all deaths throughout Los Angeles, but the worst was over by April 1919.

There are always little tidbits of irony in research like this. One was that the statistics of deaths during 1918-1919 did not have a single measles death. Another was the reported death of an LAPD officer recently returned from France and WWI who died of the flu while on quarantine detail.

It is estimated that influenza killed nearly 50 million people around the world within about two years. This was in a much slower time of ships and trains before air travel made the world smaller. So, do us all a favor. Get the damn flu shot so we don't have to relive this history lesson.

LA City Archivist Michael Holland's stories from the city archive are a regular feature of KPCC's Off-Ramp. They first appeared in longer form in the city employee newspaper "Alive!"