The recent shortage of flu vaccine brings to mind the Spanish flu pandemic that swept through Madison in the fall of 1918. The September 28, 1918 Capital Times reported: “Tilly Lentwedt is thought to be the first victim of the Spanish Influenza in Dane County. She died Sunday, September 21, at the home of her brother near Cambridge.”
By October 10 there were more than 300 sick among the Student Army Training Corps encamped at the UW, where they were preparing to go to war, and seven citizens lay dead. “The Madison Board of Health met this noon and ordered all theaters, moving picture houses, schools, churches, and other places of public gathering closed for an indefinite period.”
It was believed that the flu was caused by infectious dust swirling through the air. On the 11th seven street flushing wagons lay water on the streets. The Madison High School football team canceled its game with Rockford. Thirty-two of the city’s 221 teachers were reported ill. One hundred thirty employees were out of work due to the closing of the city’s theaters, which was expected to cost each of the nine theaters between $75 and $150 per day in revenue. Seventy-five members of Christ Presbyterian were ill. Two streets – Mendota Court and Irving Court – were closed because of the number of cases. Eleven hundred school children were sick. Both Madison General and St. Mary’s were filled to capacity. Those schoolteachers who were healthy volunteered to nurse the sick.
Thereafter, with regularity, the paper reported the previous day’s death toll.
October 12: four victims. Three of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Herman’s seven children have died since Tuesday. Churches are being asked to offer prayers for deliverance from the epidemic.
October 14: death toll 11. A Catholic priest, a businessman, a minister, and a doctor are among those taken since Saturday.
October 15: three UW men died. There are between three and four thousand cases in the city, and 685 at the UW.
October 17: seven more dead. Plans were made to turn Christ Presbyterian into an emergency hospital. Wingra Park homes were opened to students to hasten their recovery in a setting removed from the city proper.
By the 22nd 11 more dead, including Sister Mary Fortunata of St. Mary’s Hospital. “Today patients are mourning the death of ‘The Angel’ – the sister who always smiled. Three weeks ago when the flu spread terror in the city, ‘The Angel,’ hearing that the hospitals were rejecting sufferers from the malady, cried ‘For shame.’ She pleaded with her superior that the doors be opened to victims. ‘Take in the soldier boys who are ill,’ she begged, ‘the boys who had no tender hand to nurse them.’ She watched over two wards around the clock; no one could get her to leave the boys in khaki. Then she caught the flu and was dead in three days.”
By October 28: thirteen more deaths, including the second son in the Herrlein family, and assistant postmaster Ingwald Nelson, who died a day after his seven-year-old son Arthur. The following day five deaths, including Louise Vale, a former actress and wife of New York millionaire Travers Vale. In town visiting her mother, she caught the flu while volunteering at the YWCA cafeteria, waiting tables.
On November 2 UW homecoming was called off. A total of 50 Madisonians had died in October, compared to 24 in September. The following week the epidemic finally began to subside. On November 9 the Capital Times carried an announcement that schools would reopen on Monday, November 11. However, that morning whistles sounded at 2:40 a.m., announcing the Armistice and the end of World War I. The city’s streets, which had been nearly abandoned for a month or more, immediately filled with people caught up in a massive celebration.