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South Boston History Lesson: Pandemic of 1918

Hi, South Boston! I hope you are all staying sane in this time of COVID-19! Today we are looking back, over a century, to the global flu pandemic of 1918. This History Lesson is a bit of a “Huh, wow, I didn’t know that?” which hopefully you’ll be able to use to impress your friends, family, and random internet strangers!

First we have to go back in time, 102 years ago to 1918 and to the Global pandemic the world was facing. An H1N1 virus, originating from birds, was rapidly spreading. By the time the virus had run its course, it’s estimated that 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected. At least 50 million people worldwide died and approximately 675,000 of those deaths were in the US.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Way to be a bummer, Anna, and what does this even have to do with Southie?” Patience, I’m about to get there. The first reported cases for the major wave* of the 1918 H1N1 virus in the United States? Guess where they were recorded?  Did you guess yet? If you said Southie, you’d be right.

At the end of August, 1918, two sailors who were housed at Commonwealth Pier** in Southie went to the sickbay there with flu symptoms. They had the 1918 H1N1 flu. Within days, 100 more sailors had the flu. By the end of September, 1000 Bostonians had died from this flu. It is believed the flu spread so quickly thanks to A Win the War for Freedom parade through the city that included sailors from the pier. They paraded through town and well….the rest is history! (good thing we canceled the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year!)

In Boston, officials closed schools and tried to limit crowded gatherings to combat the spread of the disease — sound familiar? Sadly, by the end of 1918, the flu killed over 4,000 Bostonians, compared to 51 flu deaths recorded in the city in 1917.

In 2020, the city of Boston once again took steps to slow the spread of a flu pandemic. Please visit the city’s website for current information and for the steps you and your loved ones should be taking to stay safe! 

Stay safe, Southie! Wear your mask and wash your hands – we’ve got this! 

*In March of 1918, soldiers in Kansas became ill with the flu. Almost 50 of them died. Those are the very first cases in the US.

**Commonwealth Pier, located in the South Boston waterfront or Southie’s Seaport neighborhood, was built in 1901 as a maritime cargo handling facility. At the time, it was the largest pier building in the world!

Image of sailors at Commonwealth Pier. 

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About the Author

Anna White

Lower End homeowner since 2005. Mom of three BPS kids. Friend to all except those who don’t clean up after their dogs and/or who put their trash out in kitchen bags (seriously, people, it’s not that hard to use a barrel). Queen of the Nerds (okay that one is only in my dreams).