Today’s national news references to the 1918–1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic have focused on the contrasting experience of two cities—Philadelphia and St. Louis. In the face of the pandemic in September 1918, Philadelphia held a parade; over the next six months 16,000 residents died. St. Louis canceled its parade; its death toll was only 700. I wanted to learn more about Portland during the Spanish Flu—in particular how many people died in the 1918–1919 flu season? My article on the local quarantine history of that era will appear in the April issue of the NW Examiner. Until I can once again lead walking tours, I will continue to be a Portland history detective!
The answer: From October 10, 1918 to January 26, 1919, Portland had 16,633 reported cases of the Spanish Flu and 1,170 deaths (at that time Portland’s population was around 250,000). I spent weeks looking for daily reports of deaths in the local papers. Even when I found a hand-drawn chart prepared under the direction of Dr. A. C. Seely—which tabulated daily cases as reported to the city health bureau, the state board, and the consolidated health board for city and county—there was no summary data. I had to input Seely’s figures into Excel to show the answer.
In February 1919, the Oregon Journal reported on deaths in various cities, but omitted a figure for Portland—so I added it back in. (The lack of record in the press is similar to my challenges years ago when looking for information on the smallpox cemetery. Out-of-state news press had more information on Portland than did our local press, which historically had wanted to boost Portland’s image and downplay the negative news.)
City-by city death toll as reported in the Oregon Journal 2/12/19 (with Portland’s figure included):
- 18,590 Philadelphia
- 14,563 New York
- 7,584 Chicago
- 3,165 San Francisco
- 2,611 Los Angeles
- 1,401 Kansas City
- 1,170 Portland
- 143 Louisville
- 94 Grand Rapids
- 59 Atlanta
- 81,427 deaths in US
Links to great resources for further study: National Archives “The Deadly Virus”
A link to Portland on the Influenza Archive which uses a great methodology to determine the rate of death in 50 large US cities produced by Influenza Encyclopedia University of Michigan Library with funding from the CDC. Their findings for Portland are higher than mine and worth exploration.