Princeton was a sleepy, small town about 100 years ago. It had seven doctors, but three of them were serving in the military during World War I.
In October 1918, there were around 300 cases of influenza among the residents of the college town. Five residents developed pneumonia and 15 died of complications from the flu. They were among 195,000 Americans who died of the flu that month.
Princeton’s experience was typical of cities and towns across the United States and around the world, as the so-called Spanish flu pandemic spread in several waves through 1919.
And although it was called the Spanish flu, it did not originate in Spain, said Rita King. It’s just that Spanish newspapers were more forthright in reporting on it than newspapers in other countries, including the United States.
King, who teaches biology at The College of New Jersey, spoke about the flu pandemic that raced around the world at the Lawrence Historical Society’s 15th annual Mary Tanner Lecture that was held on Oct. 13 at Lawrence Township’s municipal building.
The lecture is named after one of the founding members of the historical society.
In the earliest times, people thought the flu had supernatural causes, King said. But it’s really a virus that begins in birds – avian flu – and makes its way into the cell and replicates itself, she said. It is a mutation.
Most people don’t get the flu very often – maybe once in every 10 years, King said. If a disease has a sudden onset and many people are affected, it is an epidemic. But if it spreads quickly and in many places, it is a pandemic.
That’s exactly what happened during the Spanish flu pandemic. As people moved around – especially the soldiers who were fighting in World War I – the bugs that caused the flu moved with them and spread the illness, King said.
“It is thought that the flu was spread by the war effort,” King said.
Soldiers lived in crowded conditions in the military camps, and the global movement of troops helped it to spread worldwide, she said.
The first inkling of a flu epidemic came in 1918, when the first outbreaks were reported among soldiers at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kan. A second wave of the flu occurred several months later at another military training camp near Boston, Mass.
The second wave had a high “kill” rate, King said. It was especially deadly among people ages 20-40. People contracted the flu and quickly died. It was unusual because the flu is fatal to infants, young children and adults over 65.
Quarantines did not work to keep the flu at bay, King said. Churches and schools closed, but the flu continued to rage, she said. Companies and businesses were hit hard by the shortage of healthy workers.
And then, just as quickly as it spread, the flu pandemic was over.
In the years since the Spanish flu pandemic, researchers have developed a flu vaccine, King said. But’s always a guessing game as to which strain of the flu will spread, and that’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has to decide the make up of the flu vaccine.
“It’s not a perfect science,” King said.