Looking Back: The 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Michigan: Part 3

One hundred and two years ago, in Grand Rapids, Michigan there was a difference. An important difference in its experience with the influenza pandemic that had begun to sneak up on the cities of America. This difference was the fact that the first case of the flu was Arthur H. Vandenberg, the publisher and editor of the Grand Rapids Herald, the city’s most-read newspaper.

Traveling on a fund-raising tour with a U.S. Navy band, Vandenberg felt symptoms, then returned to Grand Rapids where he was diagnosed with influenza a few days later. After his own newspaper named him as the first flu case in the city, the Herald reported the first death from the pandemic on October 3.

Dr. Clyde C. Slemons was the Grand Rapids Health Officer at the time. He would go on to make several statements that echo eerily down the decades. Dr. Slemons announced via newspaper and public speeches, that this flu was much like the common cold, there would not be very many cases, and it would soon disappear on its own.

Within a week there were 75 influenza cases known in Grand Rapids. By October 15, that number had doubled. The Herald ran stories describing the lack of hospital rooms and nurses. The paper reported that flu sufferers were being treating in boarding houses and some hotels, without effective isolation.

Michigan governor Albert Sleeper ordered a shutdown of all churches, movie and live theaters, bars and pool halls on Saturday, October 19, 1918, All public assemblies deemed non-essential were banned. The question of public schools remained to be decided by the local governing bodies. Slemons publicly denounced the shutdown order, claiming there were only a small number of flu cases in Grand Rapids,

With churches closed, praying at home was recommended, shopping increased, and the state-wide ban on driving on Sundays was removed. A world and a time so different, yet similar to today.

“Kindel Furniture Fire downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan” by MattsLens is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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