A teacher aids flu victims in a 1918 hospital ward

Influenza arrived in New York in August 1918, reportedly brought to the East Coast by ocean liners (though how the flu got here is still up for debate).

After the first cases were diagnosed, New York City’s health commissioner told the public, “the city is in no danger of an epidemic,” wrote Edward Robb Ellis in The Epic of New York City.

“He was wrong,” stated Ellis. In the next few months, the highly virulent and contagious disease dubbed the Spanish flu infected thousands of New Yorkers.

Residents safeguarded their health by wearing masks, hospitals were inundated with the sick, and volunteers were desperately needed to replace ill doctors and nurses.

Answering this call in 1918 was a young woman named Marion Lynch. At 23 she began traveling from her home in Darien, Connecticut to Manhattan to volunteer at Roosevelt Hospital on 59th Street and Ninth Avenue (below, in 1925), which had an influenza ward.

We don’t know exactly what motivated Lynch to volunteer at the hospital, and many of the details of her experience are unknown as well. (Lynch died in 1989 after a long career as a teacher in Rye, New York.)

But toward the end of her life, she began to jot down memories. One focused on what she saw at Roosevelt Hospital; it’s a small glimpse that reveals how dire conditions were.

“There must have been at least 15 beds on each side of the ward and the same on the long porch (perhaps more),” wrote Lynch. “There was no room for the dead. Blanket rooms and all available spaces were used.”

“There was such a shortage of blankets that patients were covered with paper instead, and that there was a horrifying rattling of the paper as they breathed,” Lynch reportedly told a cousin years later.

Lynch’s story came to me through her great nephew, an Ephemeral reader who thought his aunt’s diary snippet echoed what hospital workers saw in ERs across the city last spring, when New York was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

What hospital workers witnessed in chaotic ERs several months ago will probably haunt them forever. What will they recall and write down about the coronavirus epidemic in New York City decades later?

[First, fourth, and fifth images: National Archives and Records Administration via Influenza Archive; second image courtesy of Dana Lynch; third image: MCNY 93.1.3.589]

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5 Responses to “A teacher aids flu victims in a 1918 hospital ward”

  1. Nancy Says:

    You write that the Spanish Flu came to NYC via ocean liner, likely in August 19818. But, WW I was till going full tilt, so ocean liners were not much in use then. I did read recently a new line of research on the source of the flu. It cited US Army training camps in the mid-west. When soldiers were shipped off to war, they departed from East Coast ports, thus seeding the outbreak in places like NYC

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Nancy, very interesting. Edward Robb Ellis has it in his book that the flu was brought by sick people disembarking transatlantic ships, and the first victims in NYC were sailors and their families. So I was going off Ellis’ book.

  3. Tom B Says:

    I saw a documentary about the possible cause of the Spanish Flu. In short, it started at an Army Base in Kansas, then spread to Europe in WWI from those soldiers, then brought back to the USA by the returning soldiers from the war. All countries in Europe were banned from writing about it except Spain, who got tagged with the name. True or just another theory? It didn’t mention blaming the POTUS back then.

  4. Kimball Loomis Says:

    I am doing similar research on women who trained as nurses’ aides in NYC, spring and summer of 1918, due to shortage of nurses for military needs. Often, the “lay” women were well-to-do and well educated. They took a short intensive course which involved in hospital practical training, but at that time had no inkling that the flu was coming. One of my family members mentioned Roosevelt Hospital, for training I think, but then worked at Bellevue as an aide where conditions were similarly crowded during the influenza pandemic. Perhaps Marion Lynch was answering the call. See NY Times articles “Call for Women as Nurses’ Aids” April 17, 1918 and “Urge Wilson to Aid Nation’s Hospitals” June 18, 1918.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Great research, I was looking around for articles like those calling for nurses’ aides and volunteers. Thanks!

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