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The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918: A Snapshot


The 1918 Flu Pandemic and Albany Medical College

(Albany Medical College 1914, located in the old Lancaster School Building on the corner of Eagle and Lancaster Streets)

In early 1918, with the Great War raging around the world, all medical students were declared members of the Enlisted Reserve Corps. The United States War Department further declared that no students could enter the medical school or advance without their approval. The Students’ Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.) was established in September and on October 1 all students were inducted into the Corps.  Medical student’s lives were further upended when the College’s students were ordered to live in barracks at Union College in Schenectady. 
As the War raged on, the great influenza pandemic of 1918 struck the world, including Albany. Soon, the city was overwhelmed with the sick and medical students were needed to provide care.  Second year students were needed to perform post mortem exams during the pandemic. Third and fourth year students were released from classes for five weeks to provide care to those who had fallen ill. Dean Ordway prepared the students to provide on call care day and night in addition to the work of caring for the sick. While working with those who had fallen ill, sixteen medical students contracted the flu and two lost their lives. Click to read an Albany Medical Annals entry, “Two Student Martyrs,” detailing the two students who lost their lives. 
After the pandemic was over, attention was called by Dean Ordway “to the remarkable work during the influenza epidemic that the medical students did for the people in district work and in the hospitals of Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Pittsfield.”
Albany Hospital


(Albany Hospital circa 1900)


“This is probably the worst calamity in Albany since cholera in 1832. The hospitals and physicians were taxed to the utmost.” - Albert Vander Veer, MD

Doctors and other medical personnel were needed to fight in the Albany Base Hospital Unit No. 33 during the War creating a shortage of doctors in the Hospital when the flu pandemic hit. The War also put financial pressure on the Hospital. Medical supplies were in high demand during wartime, therefore raising the prices for those on the home front. In addition, coal rose $2 per ton and salaries were raised as a result of competition. When the flu pandemic hit Albany, Albany Hospital operated over capacity and many of those caring for the sick were medical students and volunteers. Additionally, the Hospital faced further financial burden by caring for those who could not afford to pay for the medical services.

(For more information about Base Hospital Unit No. 33 click here)


(Albany Medical College Class of 1921. These graduates were second year students during the 1918 flu pandemic and would have assisted with the post mortem examinations.)







Albany Medical College Archives General Collection

Albany Medical Annals 1918 

"The Spanish flu, 100 years later: 'May we never see the like of it again' by Bethany Bump; https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/The-Spanish-flu-100-years-later-May-we-never-13416907.php

Influenza Encyclopedia, City Essays, Albany, NY; https://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-albany.html#This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Beebe, Richard T., MD, ScD; Albany Medical College and Albany Hospital; A History: 1839-1982, Albany, NY; 1983.

Did you Know?

The 1918 flu pandemic also known as the "Spanish Flu" did not originate in Spain. It is referred to as the "Spanish Flu" because Spain, as a neutral country during WWI, freely reported on the devastation and deadliness of the flu pandemic unlike those countries fighting in the War. The Allied and Central Powers censored news of the flu to keep morale high during wartime. This led to those reading the news coverage of the disease spreading in Spain to assume that Spain is where the deadly disease originated. Those in Spain called it the "French Flu" believing it had spread to Spain from France. 

The first known case of the deady flu is believed to have been in Kansas and possibly originated in an animal, either a bird or farm animal, which then spread to farmers. These young farmers were then shipped off to war where they spread the disease among their military allies, the rest of Europe and then the world. 

The flu was called "grippe" in 1918. The word originated from the French grippe, which means "influenza," but also "seizure."

Unusually, the high death rate was in young healthy adults ages 15-34.

The 1918 flu pandemic resulted in 150-200 orphans in Albany County.

In the city of Albany, a $500 fine (modern day equivalent of about $8,500) or up to a year in prison was instituted for anyone who coughed or sneezed in public without covering their mouth. 





The Great Influenza Pandemic and Albany, NY

- Albany, NY was not spared the great influenza pandemic of 1918. It emerged in the city in late September, 1918. At first, it was thought Albany would avoid the brunt of the disease as not many cases appeared initially. However, as the days continued, more and more people fell ill and reports from doctors indicated it was influenza. Following this news, City Health Officer, Dr. Arthur Sautter, (Albany Medical College class of 1894), recommended a general closure order. Within a day, Albany Commissioner of Public Safety James Sheldon Frost ordered all schools, churches, theaters, movie houses and libraries closed, in addition to suspending all indoor public gatherings. 

- After the hospitals in Albany were overflowing with sick influenza patients, the new Smallpox Hospital was open for the care of those ill with the deadly flu disease.

- The community came together during and after the pandemic. Medical students from Albany Medical College provided on call care and regular patient care, the police drove patients to the hospitals, school nurses were assigned to work for the Bureau of Health, and even an official within Albany's administration department loaned his personal vehicle as an ambulance. Following the pandemic, groups came together, including the Catholic diocese to offer assistance housing the many children who had become orphaned as a result of the pandemic. 

-Albany reopened after two weeks although schools remained closed longer. By the beginning of November, 7,091 cases of the flu had been reported and over 450 Albany citizens had lost their lives to the deadly disease.


(Albany Hospital Ambulances, early 1920s. Most likely used to transport the sick to the hospital during the 1918 pandemic.)

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