Q. How hard was Ann Arbor hit by the 1918 flu epidemic–approximately how many died?
A. Between the summers of 1918 and 1919, millions of people around the globe died of a deadly variant of influenza known as the “Spanish flu.” A half a million Americans lost their lives, far more than perished in WWI.
It was a terrifying, terrible time. Each delivery of the Ann Arbor News brought a column of the previous day’s flu deaths, near the column of war deaths. In contrast to most epidemics, the influenza hit young people in their prime, including soldiers who had survived battlefields and parents who had just begun families.
The first Ann Arbor death occurred on October 6, 1918. On October 16, with more than 200 cases of flu in the city and many more on campus, the city health officer ordered all places of public assembly closed indefinitely. Public schools were closed the next day, and the University Musical Society cancelled a concert by the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. All university faculty and students were ordered to wear face masks, and local citizens were urged to do the same.
A picture of the 66th victim, eighteen-year-old Daisy Davis, adorns her Bethlehem Cemetery sarcophagus. There appears to be no official mortality count for Ann Arbor, but before the News stopped running daily tallies at the end of October, it reported 115 deaths. By then, the epidemic was abating; the ban on public assembly was lifted on November 9.
The Michigan football team was national champion in 1918. The Wolverines were undefeated (outscoring their opponents 96-6), but played just five games. The rest of the season was cancelled due to the epidemic and wartime travel restrictions.
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