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Spanish Flu In San Antonio, A Century Later

Library of Congress
A nurse takes a patient’s pulse in the influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1, 1918. Health experts – including those in San Antonio – believed fresh air would help prevent the spread of the disease. ";s:3:

It’s been called the mother of all pandemics: Spanish flu.

It roared around the globe in late 1918, infecting a third of the world's population, while killing 51 million. The modern, thriving city of San Antonio essentially shut down — twice — as the flu took its toll.


Louie Edward Mayberry moved to San Antonio in 1918. He was 11 years old. Reflecting on the move, he said, "I started school, and just a few days they had a flu epidemic in San Antonio and they turned the schools out."

Credit http://digital.utsa.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p9020coll008/id/10815/rec/3 / UTSA Libraries Digital Collection
UTSA Libraries Digital Collection
This photo of Alamo Plaza in San Antonio was taken on October 26, 1918, during the city's first quarantine for the Spanish flu.

Mayberry's oral memoirs were recorded in 1987 and are archived at the Baylor Institute of Oral History, and he still remembered clearly the time the city stopped everything as the flu ravaged its residents.

Mayberry shared how the city closed schools and other gathering places in mid-October, then declared the epidemic over the day World War I ended.

"Then school started again,” he said. “It went on for a couple of weeks and then it turned out again. We didn't get much schooling before Christmas."

The first time the Spanish flu hit San Antonio, it snuck up on the city. The focus of most Americans in the fall of 1918 was the great war. But beginning in late August and early September of that year, the focus of soldiers in Europe was a flu that started sickening troops from all nations.

Then troops in the US started getting sick, including those at San Antonio’s Camp Travis, home of the 19th Army Division.

Ana Martinez-Catsam, who teaches history at The University of Texas of the Permian Basin, is from San Antonio, and wrote an article called “Desolate Streets: The Spanish Influenza in San Antonio.”

"Between Sept. 19 and 20 there were flu-like cases in Camp Travis, and so doctors reported this as the flu,” Martinez-Catsam said. “Of course, rumors start to spread that its influenza and military officials want to reassure the city that it wasn't."

Credit http://digital.utsa.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p9020coll008/id/1442/rec/3 / UTSA Libraries Digital Collection
UTSA Libraries Digital Collection
Soldiers at Camp Travis in 1918.

But it was, and by the time the military acknowledged it, Martinez-Catsam said it was all around.

"Travis was hit, Fort Sam Houston, Kelly … so it was at the military bases. And it's on Oct. 1 when the military pretty much quarantined the military installations. Enlisted men could not visit San Antonio," Martinez-Catsam said.

San Antonio's city health officer Dr. William Anthony King had been paying attention to what had been going on at the military installations, she said, but he wasn't convinced it was a big deal, and he didn't think his city was a risk of an epidemic.

"San Antonio was known as a health destination — had a clean-up campaign; a few mild cases of the flu — but he didn't it would be severely hit by the influenza. If anything, they could limit it," Catsam-Martinez said.

However, by the time King and the Board of Public Health decided on Oct. 16, 1918, to close the schools, churches, lodges, theaters, and to ban public gatherings, the epidemic was already reaching its peak.

Three days later, doctors reported a total of 700 new influenza cases in one day.

And people were dying.

"You have a number of children who pass away within the same family. You have a mother and a father. You have a mother and a child,” Martinez-Catsam said. “So what would happen, because it was so highly contagious, several members got sick, and several members passed away"


Why was this flu so virulent and so deadly? Dr. Jean Patterson, a scientist in the department of virology and immunology at Texas Biomedical Research Institute, said it was a perfect storm.

Credit Texas Biomedical Research Institute
Texas Biomedical Research Institute
Scientist Jean Patterson at Texas Biomed says a strain of influenza that is as virulent as the Spanish flu could circulate again, but she says we're better prepared now and it probably wouldn't be nearly as deadly. The 1918 flu infected one third of the world's population and killed 51 million people.

"There were no antibiotics. People were more stressed and less healthy than they are normally (because of the war), and it was a very virulent influenza that people hadn't seen before. They had no antibodies to it," Patterson said.

By at least one estimate, by the time this flu was done with San Antonio, 53 percent of the population got sick, and 881 people died.

Martinez-Catsam said after weeks of quarantine and sickness, some once bustling businesses never reopened. In some cases, the owners couldn’t take the financial losses of being closed for so long, and in others, the owners died of the flu.

Even though Spanish flu killed millions around the world, it was still just the flu. Influenza kills an average of 36,000 people in the U.S. every year, and a virulent flu-like the 1918 strain could strike during any year, Patterson said.

Patterson says we're better prepared for an influenza pandemic now than in 1918 because, among other things, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other organizations do regular surveillance of the influenza strains that are circulating the globe, and every year there's a new vaccine.

"You have a little bit of immune response to different part of the flu and your body is ready to go,” Patterson said. “You're not going protect yourself entirely, but you're going to have some resistance to influenza."

The holy grail for people like her is a universal flu vaccine that covers all strains of the flu.

"And I think we're closer,” she said. “We really have some good people and good ideas out there, and that is what would really be incredible."


Bonnie Petrie can be reached at bonnie@tpr.org or on Twitter @kbonniepetrie