5. Spanish Flu

Typist wearing flu maskA typist wearing a flu mask in New York City in October 1918. Photo from National Archive

In 1918, the “Spanish Flu” pandemic infected 500 million people around the world, 27% of the world’s population, and killed anywhere from 17 million to 50 million people. In the first year of the pandemic alone, the average life expectancy in the United States had already dropped by 12 years. Out of 5.6 million people living in New York, about 33,000 succumbed to the flu, a number much lower than expected since New York was the most populated and most diverse city in the U.S. at the time.
To prevent the flu from spreading, the Board of Health created a timetable system to regulate the opening and closing hours of businesses while easing congestion of public transit systems during rush hours. Additionally, a “clearinghouse plan” was installed to establish 150 temporary health centers in the city. Schools, theaters, and offices were also kept open during the pandemic since people were often safer in contained areas. The Board of Health informed students of ways to keep healthy during the height of flu season, which especially benefited immigrant families.