Looking Back At The 1918 Flu Pandemic

Nov 21, 2018

Every autumn, we brace ourselves for the onset of another flu season. In this segment of Time & Place, historian Alicia Barber takes us back one hundred years, when one of the biggest influenza pandemics in history had western Nevada in its grip.

In 1918, as the First World War was still raging, another deadly threat to humanity was gaining strength. The Spanish influenza had been making its way through Europe, and ravaging the ranks of the American military who were stationed there. Springtime brought reports of the first cases on the home front.

At first, officials downplayed the severity of the outbreak, but by autumn, healthy adults and children from cities to remote rural areas were being stricken, with many dying within days.

The first case in Nevada was diagnosed in October, and within weeks Reno’s Board of Health imposed a precautionary citywide quarantine. All theatres, churches, dance halls, and the high school were ordered to close, and all public gatherings were banned.  At first, grade schools stayed open, with students placed in alternating seats, and prohibited from mingling on the playgrounds. But as the number of cases spiked, they closed, too.  Towns from Gardnerville to Ely also adopted quarantines.

With a limited understanding of the illness and no viable treatments, doctors struggled to keep the infection from spreading. Edwin Cantlon was seven years old at the time and living in Sparks when a family practitioner from Fernley visited his family’s ranch, as he recalled in 1992.

“Dr. Joslin passed out masks which were similar to the early-day cloth masks used in the operating room, and gave the instructions to soak these masks in rubbing alcohol and then wear them over your nose and mouth," Cantlon says. "This proved to be a chore that was beyond most people, and the smell of the rubbing alcohol, I guess, was the deciding factor, and this was soon discarded.” 

Out in public, gauze masks became a common sight.  In nearby Plumas County, California, anyone caught in public without wearing one was fined $25—a sizeable fee back then. Schools, Elks lodges, and other buildings were converted into temporary hospitals to keep patients isolated. At one point, about 80 percent of the children in the Carson City Orphan’s Home were sick.  Cantlon’s family came through unaffected but when the quarantine was lifted, he found that others hadn’t been so lucky.

“There was a sizeable epidemic, and schools in Sparks were shut down for a month or so during the winter months," Cantlon says. "And I remember that when I went back to school, two of our classmates had passed on from this.”

All told, at least 50 million people worldwide died in the pandemic, including more than 675,000 Americans. By the 1930's, medical advances had identified the cause as a virus, and the first clinically tested vaccines to fight it were given to American soldiers during World War II.  Among them was Edwin Cantlon, who had attended Harvard medical school and served in the Army medical corps during the war. After it ended, he returned to Reno, where he ran a surgical practice for the next 41 years.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.