A Parade in Philadelphia to Remember the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic

On October 17, the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia will be opening an exhibit to show visitors how the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic — also called the Spanish Flu — affected the everyday lives of the residents of Philadelphia. The exhibit, titled “Spit Spreads Death,” is described by the museum as follows:

“Spit Spreads Death is an exhibition and artist project that explores both this devastating historic event and the connections to contemporary health issues. Join us for an exploration that begins before the exhibition opens and will continue throughout the life of the exhibition. Check our Events page for details on neighborhood walking tours, a health fair, free flu shots, and the opportunity to participate in a public parade held on the anniversary of the Liberty Loan Parade. On September 28, 2019, facilitated by the internationally renowned artist group Blast Theory and local community health organizations, the Mütter Museum invites our audience, supporters, and the Philadelphia community at large to participate in a parade to memorialize the Philadelphia victims of the influenza pandemic and to honor the tremendous work being done every day by community health groups.”

On Saturday, September 28, 2019, a parade was held in the streets of Philadelphia to commemorate the 101 years since the pandemic arrived in Philadelphia. On September 28, 1918, the City of Philadelphia held the “Liberty Loan Parade,” a parade that brought about 200,000 Philadelphia residents together on Broad Street as a fundraiser to sell government bonds (the Liberty Loans). Shortly after the 1918 parade, influenza spread throughout Philadelphia, virtually collapsing every service and institution. From Smithsonian Magazine:

“Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. With many of the city’s health professionals pressed into military service, Philadelphia was unprepared for this deluge of death.

Attempting to slow the carnage, city leaders essentially closed down Philadelphia. On October 3, officials shuttered most public spaces – including schools, churches, theaters and pool halls. But the calamity was relentless. Understaffed hospitals were crippled. Morgues and undertakers could not keep pace with demand. Grieving families had to bury their own dead. Casket prices skyrocketed. The phrase “bodies stacked like cordwood” became a common refrain. And news reports and rumors soon spread that the Germans –the “Huns” – had unleashed the epidemic.”

The 2019 parade was a more somber occasion. It was a remembrance of how influenza killed thousands and changed the world. Today, we have the advantage of an influenza vaccine. Yes, the vaccine could be better, but it’s better than nothing, and there is plenty of research into a better influenza vaccine happening right now. We also keep a close eye on influenza activity around the world, so that we are not surprised with something so deadly and have time to prepare for next time.

Here is an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer about the exhibit and the parade: https://www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia/spit-spreads-death-flu-pandemic-epidemic-philly-mutter-museum-20190929.html

And here is how parade participants and bystanders shared their experiences on social media:

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Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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