The Perils of Pandemic and War: Spanish Flu Brings D.C. to its Knees
By Meaghan Kacmarcik
via the Boundary Stones WETA television (DC) blog
It was the start of October and the dog days of summer in the nation’s capital had officially come to an end. The crisp autumn air, a relief to most Washingtonians in years past, was an ominous foreshadowing of the days and weeks to come. There would be no more open windows in homes, streetcars, or workplaces for the foreseeable future. While keeping as much heat as possible inside a building is self-explanatory, warmth was not the only invisible entity kept within enclosed places that fateful fall of 1918.
The nation’s attention, of course, was preoccupied with what was happening on the battlefields of Europe. For over a year, the United States had fought beside the beleaguered forces of the Allies in the Great War. From the American entrance into the conflict in April 1917 until September 1918, the population in Washington, DC swelled. Much like it would during World War II, the District became the hub for all aspects of the planning and execution of war activities. The federal government grew exponentially to support the war effort and, as scores of men — including many government workers — were drafted into the military. Thousands of them found themselves stationed in the various military installations in and around the city.
The influx of service men and war workers to the District caused the city’s population to skyrocket. Before the war, Washingtonians numbered around 350,000. By war’s end in November 1918, this number ballooned to 526,000 – a 66% increase. 
Washington reeled from the staggering numbers of people pouring into the city to aid in the war effort. Housing quickly became scarce and overcrowded. The cost of food and general living expenses inflated much too fast for wages to keep up. Despite the poor living conditions in the nation’s capital, women from across America saw it their patriotic duty to sacrifice their lives at home and come to Washington to aid in America’s first total war. No good deed goes unpunished, though.
Trouble was brewing for months in the United States. In March of 1918, word began traveling of a flu-like illness slowly spreading throughout the country from its place of origin, Camp Funston, Kansas. The sickness swept through the ranks of the American military, knocking many-a-men down for a few days, but killing very few. This influenza epidemic caused few in DC much concern during that spring. The Evening Star, for example, spent little time discussing the rapid increase of service members hospitalized by the illness.
As spring melted into summer, however, an increasing number of Americans began taking note of the scourge. The epidemic found its way over to the trenches in Europe where it wreaked havoc on both sides of the conflict. Back in the U.S., cases of the Spanish Flu (as it was inaccurately named – it did not originate in Spain) increased again during August and September. As the plague claimed more and more victims across the country, D.C. newspapers relayed reports. However, there seemed to be relatively little attention paid to how to protect the District from the seemingly inevitable spread of the malady to DC. And spread it did.
Read the entire article on the Boundary Stones blog.
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