Posts Tagged ‘Spanish Flu 1918 New York City’

A teacher aids flu victims in a 1918 hospital ward

October 19, 2020

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]