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Wisconsin

Wisconsin officials did not provide influenza reports to the Public Health Service until October 18th. This was unusual as most states began reporting on or around September 27th. This failure to report may indicate that the influenza pandemic had caused a serious crisis in the state. However, the state's failure to report may also simply indicate that the Wisconsin State Board of Health was poorly organized before the outbreak.

Panoramic view of the state of Wisonsin. [Credit: The Library of Congress]
Panoramic view of the state of Wisonsin. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

On October 18th, state officials noted that "new cases are reported from localities." On October 25th, officials informed the Public Health Service that "reports of the disease have been received from a large number of places, in some of which the disease is increasing and in others decreasing." On November 1st, the state released a more extensive report: "On October 28th, it was stated that the situation in southern Wisconsin was clearing up but that the disease was expected to spread further into the northern part of the State. Outside of Milwaukee, 3,379 cases were reported for the week ending October 19th, with 4,109 cases being reported for the following week. During that same two week period, Milwaukee claimed to have just under 5,000 cases of influenza, with slightly over two hundred deaths. The actual number for both cases of influenza and deaths were probably much higher.

While the state did not report during the early part of the pandemic, it is clear that the pandemic had reached Wisconsin long before October. The first deaths from influenza had occurred in Milwaukee during the week of September 14th.

Despite the state's inability to report to the federal government about influenza, the Wisconsin State Board of Health did hold a special meeting on October 2nd to discuss the situation. They issued regulations which called for all of the state's physicians to treat influenza. Physicians came out of retirement to comply with this order. Medical practitioners were also required to report cases to the local health officer. Officials hoped that this directive would help them to track the disease.

The Pabst Building in Milwaukee would have been one of the public building ordered to close its doors during the epidemic. c. 1900 and 1915. [Credit: The Library of Congress]
The Pabst Building in Milwaukee would have been one of the public building ordered to close its doors during the epidemic. c. 1900 and 1915. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

Quarantines were immediately imposed on residences, even if only one case of influenza existed in the residence. Only medical practitioners were permitted to enter these homes. The quarantine could be lifted only after residents provided proof that no one in the house had had a temperature for at least four days. Once residents had complied with this directive, they also needed to air thoroughly before it could be opened to admit outside visitors.

Hospital procedures were strictly regulated during the pandemic. Hospitals forbid visitors access to hospital rooms with influenza patients. Only medical practitioners were permitted to enter the rooms of these patients.

Funerals were to be limited to family members only. On October 10th, Wisconsin's health officer, Cornelius Harper, ordered all public institutions in Wisconsin closed.

In Oshkosh, on October 8th, a newspaper headline summarized the situation by stating "Views of doctors on how to handle grip don't agree. All say situation is serious. Some urge prompt closing and quarantines." At that time, over a hundred cases in the Oshkosh area had already been reported. Following state regulations, influenza placards were placed on all houses with suspected cases. The placards read: "Warning! Influenza here. This card must not be removed without authority. Milk dealers must not deliver milk in bottles." Despite these precautions, cases in Oshkosh continued to mount and a shortage of flowers for funerals was reported.

Cures were non-existent but drug companies, such as the Weeden Drug Company, advertised "Spanish Flu medicines and cures." Recognizing the lack of effective cures, the Oshkosh Savings and Trust Company ran several ad campaigns for wills. In Winchester, doctors resorted to extreme measures. One physician injected eight shots of camphor-oil directly into the legs and arms of his patients in an attempt to treat the raging temperatures caused by the flu. This treatment proved, as did all others, ineffective.

On October 22nd, the Mayo Hospital in Minnesota released an experimental vaccine which was distributed in Oshkosh. It was supplied to city residents at no cost. Three inoculations, each a week apart, were recommended over a period of six to nine months to "confer immunity." from influenza. The vaccine also proved ineffective.

Pabst Brewery, Milwaukee. c. between 1890 and 1901. [Credit: The Library of Congress]
Pabst Brewery, Milwaukee. c. between 1890 and 1901. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

The disease peaked in the fall. Although influenza remained pervasive throughout the state during the winter and spring, the number of cases did decline slightly during early 1919. By the summer, the disease had begun to disappear from the state.

While reports of influenza-related deaths are notoriously accurate, Wisconsin may have had low rates of fatalities when compared to other states. Although it is unclear why, historians and epidemiologists believe that Milwaukee probably fared better than most large cities. In Madison, however, the situation was probably quite different. Although the university claimed to be free of the disease at different periods during the pandemic, this seems unlikely given the propensity of influenza to strike young adults.


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