Great River Road, 2016

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Alton

June 3, 2020

Last modified: June 3, 2020

The Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918 is considered one of the deadliest pandemics in modern history. Worldwide, an estimated 500 million people were infected with this strain of influenza between 1918-19, resulting in the deaths of 50 million people across the globe.1 While the pandemic impacted the world and nation, in Alton, Illinois, the deadliest span of this disease was from early October to December of 1918, a period commonly referred to as the second wave of the virus. With the pandemic occurring during and immediately after World War I, it was quickly spread among troops.

In Alton, doctors and politicians initially had mixed opinions about what precautions should be taken towards virus prevention. In early October, doctors originally saw no reason to close schools and theaters or cancel public meetings, as there were few initial cases in the area at all, and none were serious. After the general consensus of local physicians was shared with Mayor Sauvage, the decision was made to not close anything in Alton until a severe increase in cases occurred in towns. Mayor Sauvage’s October 12 decision to continue normal operations in Alton differed from Edwardsville, which had started closing some small shops.2 Both politicians and doctors quickly realized their mistake however, as less than two weeks later they made an urgent request to Mayor Sauvage to close schools and end all public meetings and gatherings. Funerals, typically communal affairs, were restricted to only intimate friends and immediate family.3 The only exception to the ban on public gatherings were meetings regarding public safety, health, and the war effort. This exception included the Red Cross and any other organizations working to curb the disease and its spread.4

After recognizing the necessity for government intervention, Alton initiated a policy akin to  “social distancing,” by limiting meetings, schools, and other forms of public get-togethers. Additionally the city of Alton asked women to volunteer as interim nurses, with advertisements for recruits proclaiming, “If you can follow a doctor’s instructions, you are wanted and will probably be able to save a life that otherwise could not be saved.”5 Women were urged to make surgical masks for the Surgical Dressing Committee to limit the spread of the influenza among soldiers.6 There also started to be suggestions of a cure for the influenza, such as a “diphtheria antitoxin”. A doctor in the research department at the University of Illinois, Dr. Louis J. Pint, had put forward this cure, suggesting that with his curative “antitoxin” he had not yet lost a patient to the influenza.7

Despite the substantial public service announcements and strides taken to encourage social distancing throughout Alton, cultural expectations weighed heavily on residents who feared they would be perceived as “unsocial” by not hosting people or events. Quarantine violations were common enough that the newspapers reported on people choosing to intentionally break quarantine for such reasons as buying a yeast cake and meeting up to gossip.8

Influenza cases began to decline in Alton between late November and early December, which resulted in the tentative resumption of meetings, reopening of schools, and making funerals public again. By December 9, 1918, there was no longer the constant presence of people talking about the flu in the newspapers beyond funeral preparations.9

Endnotes   [ + ]

1. Taubenberger, Jeffery K.; Morens, David M., “1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics” (accessed June 3, 2020).
2. The Alton Telegraph, Will Defer Action on Closing Alton” 12 October 1918, (accessed April 26, 2020).
3. The funeral restriction covers any death, not just deaths caused by the influenza.
4. The Alton Telegraph, Emphasis Laid on Private Funerals” 21 October 1918, (accessed April 26, 2020).
5. The Alton Telegraph,  Mayor Receives New Order from Health Department in Which He is Told That Gatherings Must Stop,” 21 October 1918, (accessed April 26, 2020).
6. The Alton Telegraph, Many Volunteers to Make Influenza Masks,” 10 October 1918, (accessed April 26, 2020).
7. The Alton Telegraph,Tabloid Tales and Little Locals,” 23 October 1918, (accessed April 26, 2020).
8. The Alton Telegraph,Tabloid Tales and Little Locals,” 23 October 1918, (accessed April 26, 2020).
9. The Alton Telegraph, Society and Club” 9 December 1918, (accessed April 26, 2020).
Cite this article: Maddie Halstead, "The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Alton," Madison Historical: The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive for Madison County, Illinois, last modified June 3, 2020, https://madison-historical.siue.edu/encyclopedia/1918-flu-alton/.
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