The History of Delaware Pandemics


by Terry Rogers 

1918 Influenza Epidemic

The current COVID-19 pandemic may seem unique in our area but there have been several pandemics over the years that have led to closures, restrictions and concern among residents. In fact, prominent Milfordians were victims of pandemics many years ago.

In December 1857, a typhoid epidemic took the lives of Bethuel Watson and his sister, Elizabeth. At the time, Bethuel was married to Ruth Tharp Watson and Elizabeth to Manlove Carlisle. After the deaths of their spouses, Manlove and Ruth married.

In December 1918, a sudden outbreak of influenza appeared in Milford, Lewes and Milton. Schools and other public places were closed. An outbreak in Milford in October 1918 of influenza caused no deaths but the second outbreak in December led to two deaths in just two days. Holiday dances were cancelled throughout the town.

It is difficult to know exactly how many people were affected in the 1918 influenza epidemic as regular reports to the U.S. Public Health Service were never made. Delaware acted to contain the flu just as other states did. In October 1918, an emergency session of the Delaware State Board of Health dealt with methods for stemming the death toll. All schools, theaters, churches, motion picture houses, dance halls, carnivals, fairs, bazaars, billiard rooms, pool halls and bowling alleys were closed throughout the state until further notice.

The influenza pandemic led hospitals in Delaware to be so overwhelmed, the state tried to divert patients to Philadelphia hospitals. However, hospitals in nearby Pennsylvania were also overrun.

It is believed that one of the reasons this area was so hard hit by the virus was the Fourth Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia held on September 28, 1918. Over 200,000 people attended the event which was designed to promote the sale of war bonds as well as support for the troops overseas. The parade was held despite the fact that 70 people in the city had already died of the flu. After the parade, there were reports of more than 100 cases in 24 hours.

By Tuesday, October 1, the hospitals of Philadelphia were “crowded to the doors,” according to Dr. Wilmer Krusen, the city’s health director. Even worse, doctors and nurses were coming down with the flu and there were not many tools available to combat the illness. There was no vaccine, no antiviral drugs to treat the illness and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections like pneumonia. The mechanical ventilator, known as the “iron lung,” was not invented until 1928. By the first week of October, 2,400 people had been diagnosed in Wilmington.

By October 4, 1918, the state of Pennsylvania reported more than 52,000 active cases with another 1,480 cases reported the next day. The death toll rose above 700, yet some medical officials continued to claim the actual mortality rate was less than one-half percent.

“Widespread alarm is needless,” Dr. John W. Croskey, President of the West Philadelphia Medical Association, said. “Auto-suggestion has as much to do with the present state of mind of the people of Philadelphia.” One military official said the disease could disappear in a few days if people wore gauze masks in public. Another city health official blamed careless coughing and sneezing.

It was not until October 10 that the epidemic seemed to be waning although the death toll continued to rise. There were reports of undertakers taking advantage of families who were dealing with the burial of those who died, some families needing to bury more than one person. In one Delaware location, a casket was placed on a front porch before a funeral and while the undertaker was inside, a man took the casket from the porch in order to bury his wife.