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  • Writer's pictureDebora Ellen Blodgett

1918 Influenza Impacts Massachusetts

Updated: Jan 10

1919 Influenza, Red Cross Workers

The year 1918 marked the beginning of a worldwide epidemic that later became known as the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919. Although the disease was called the “Spanish Flu,” the name was a misnomer. During World War I, the United States and several European countries censored news about the influenza epidemic, fearing additional panic or adverse impact on soldier morale. During the war, Spain remained neutral, which resulted in its newspapers freely reporting news of the influenza epidemic. This incorrectly led many to believe Spain was the origin of the disease, or more severely impacted than other countries, which was not the case. In fact, an estimated one-third of the world’s population, about 500 million, became infected and the total deaths due to influenza were tallied between 50 and 100 million people during the approximately six months of the pandemic spanning late 1918 to early 1919. About 675,000 of these deaths occurred in the United States.[1]

Influenza Hospital, Brookline MA

In Massachusetts, it was conservatively reported that 400,000 became infected between September and December of 1918. As many physicians and nurses were enlisted in the military, the number of medical professionals available to battle this illness was reduced. In addition, hospital facilities throughout the state were sorely unprepared to accommodate the sizable number of cases, prompting the establishment of about 50 emergency hospitals throughout the state.[2]

Fighting Influenza, Brookline MA

The most dramatic impact occurred in October 1918 with an average of 418 deaths occurring per day. The total Massachusetts deaths attributable to influenza in 1918 totaled 13,783. However, an additional 4,643 deaths listed influenza as a secondary cause of death, bringing the total impact of influenza-related deaths to 18,426.[3]

In 1919, there were 2,872 deaths attributable to influenza.[4]

Influenza, Mask House, Lawrence MA

The expense to the Massachusetts government in fighting the influenza outbreak amounted to about $100,000 in 1918. (That would be about $1.6 million in today’s dollars.)[5]

Beginning in 1884, Massachusetts law required town board of health officials to keep a record of residents infected with diseases deemed dangerous to public health.[6] Bound books, entitled Record of Diseases Dangerous to Public Health, were provided by the state printing office to each town for this purpose so as to provide consistency in data reporting. These log books included spaces to record the disease contracted, as well as the impacted individual’s name, age, occupation, address, reporting individual, and disposition. However, before September 1918, influenza was not one of the reportable diseases as it was not considered dangerous to public health before the 1918 strain.[7]

Death Certificate COD - Spanish Influenza

From a genealogical standpoint, if your ancestor died in late 1918 or early 1919, the death record will give a clue as to whether your ancestor might have died of the influenza. The cause of death may be listed as influenza or Spanish flu. Other contributing ailments, like pneumonia, may also be listed.

For More Information

CDC: The 1918 Flu Pandemic: Why It Matters 100 Years Later

Hatfield Historical Society: In-Flew-Enza: The Deadly Pandemic Strikes Hatfield

National Archives: The Deadly Virus, The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

PBS: Influenza 1918


Red Cross Workers of Boston, 24 March 1919

Emergency Hospital for Influenza Cases, October 1918

Fighting Influenza in the U.S. Army, 24 September 1918

Mask House, Influenza Camp, 29 May 1919

Death Certificate Excerpt, Judah Wilton Berry, Harwich, Mass., 16 December 1918


[1] Laura Stephenson Carter, “Cold Comfort,” Dartmouth Medicine, (Winter 2006), Dartmouth  ( : accessed 10 January 2024), 36-57.

[2] Fourth Annual Report of the State Department of Health of Massachusetts (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1919), State Library of Massachusetts ( : accessed 10 January 2024), p. 3-6.

[3] Harold D. Wilson, ed., Seventy-Seventh Annual Report on the Vital Statistics of Massachusetts…for the Year 1918 (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1920), Google Books ( : accessed 10 January 2024), p. 180, 190.

[4] Annual Report on the Vital Statistics of Massachusetts…for the Year 1919 (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1921), HathiTrust ( : accessed 10 January 2024), p. 99.

[5] Fourth Annual Report of the State Department of Health of Massachusetts, p, 3-6.

[6] The Revised Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Enacted November 21, 1901 (Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co., 1902), State Library of Massachusetts ( : accessed 10 January 2024), chap. 75, sec. 51, p. 666.

[7] Deb Blodgett, "In-Flew-Enza: The Deadly Pandemic Strikes Hatfield," Bird by Bird, 11 January 2016, Hatfield Historical Society ( : accessed 10 January 2024).

Copyright 2021, 2024 - Debora Ellen Blodgett


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