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In the year preceding the pandemic, workers flocked to Washington DC to serve in the war-time government. This rapid growth led to a range of public health problems and when the influenza pandemic hit in the fall of 1918, city officials were quickly overwhelmed.

The Public Health Service, which was headquartered in the District, noted that “the disease appeared in the District of Columbia...and almost at once the situation became very serious. The District health officer and representatives of the War Department requested that the service aid them in handling the epidemic, and accordingly an officer was ordered to Washington immediately to cooperate with the local authorities in handling the epidemic.

A black and white photograph of the interior of a drugstore.  Counters are stacked with goods and labeled “Fountain Syringes” and “Hospital Supplies.”
Desperate for a cure, Washingtonians flooded drugstores such as this People’s Drugstore in Northwest. c. 1901-1921. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

The Surgeon General of the Navy offered the services of 40 medical officers who were immediately available. An emergency hospital was opened with a capacity of 500 beds, this hospital being moved later to a smaller building having a capacity of about 100 patients. This latter was in practically continuous operation from October to March 1, when it was discontinued.”

During the height of the pandemic, the District’s Health Commissioner, Louis Brownlow, faced a shortage of coffins and resorted to hijacking a shipment of coffins which were passing through the city en route to Pittsburgh.

The Sardo Funeral home in DC had non-stop business. Looking back on the pandemic, Bill Sardo remembered “from the moment I got up in the morning to when I went to bed at night, I felt a constant sense of fear. We wore gauze masks. We were afraid to kiss each other, to eat with each other, to have contact of any kind. We had no family life, no church life, no community life. Fear tore people apart.”

The disease slowly declined during the late fall, although it remained pervasive in the area throughout the winter and spring of 1919.

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