Tuesday, March 17, 2020
The actions taken by Dr. Max C. Starkloff of St. Louis during the Spanish-flu epidemic of 1918 would later be known as social distancing.
In Philadelphia authorities decided to allow a Liberty Loan parade to raise money for the war effort and in late September two hundred thousand people marched up Broad Street and at parade’s end, listened to a concert by John Philip Sousa. Within three days, the cities’ hospitals were overflowing and thousands were dead with bodies stacked like cord wood.
However, in St. Louis officials took quick, extreme measures to close schools, churches, theaters, and playgrounds, now known as social distancing.
Dr. Starkloff was the St. Louis City Health Commissioner that led the way in 1918 with aggressive actions during the Spanish influenza pandemic. The H1N1 virus infected a third of the world’s population and killed 50 million worldwide.
The first case of Spanish flu is believed to have been contracted at a military base in Kansas. With soldiers taking trains as they were deployed during World War I, it wasn’t long until the virus spread. Jefferson Barracks was hit first in St. Louis with influenza on October 1. Within a week, 800 soldiers were hospitalized.
With a population of 687,000 in 1918, St. Louis was the nation’s fourth largest city. Not long after the outbreak at Jefferson Barracks, those living in the city started suffering from influenza.
On October 7, Dr. Starkloff, with the backin g of Mayor Henry Kiel, began to shut down the city by closing city schools, theaters, movie houses and places of amusement. He also banned public gatherings of more than 20 people.
The following day, he closed churches earning him the ire of Archbishop John Glennon, who protested, but eventually the Archbishop temporarily suspended the weekly Mass. Dr. Starkloff also closed the municipal court, playgrounds, library reading rooms, pool halls, fraternal lodges and limited the use of public transportation which at the time meant streetcars. Downtown department stores operated under restricted hours.
The result: The per-capita death rate from influenza in St. Louis was half that of Philadelphia.