PIERRE — While the current bird flu poses a threat to the world, the Spanish flu was more than a threat in 1918-20 — it became a worldwide epidemic.

Matthew T. Reitzel, manuscript archivist for the South Dakota State Historical Society-Archives at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, said he recently read where a possible bird flu outbreak was compared to the Spanish flu outbreak, and the fact that there wasn't much information about the Spanish flu. So he decided to research the state archives on the topic, and he came up with some interesting statistics.

The first documented case of a death from the Spanish flu in South Dakota occurred in September 1918, according to Reitzel's research. More deaths followed throughout the United States and the world. The Spanish flu was a global disaster and affected a high percentage of the population, hence the term "pandemic." Reports indicated that about a fifth of the world's population contracted the Spanish flu over a two-year period. Deaths world-wide ranged anywhere from 25 million to 50 million people; estimates show that about 675,000 Americans died of the flu in 1918.


In December 1917, the South Dakota Division of Vital Statistics (then under the Department of History) recorded only 54 flu related deaths. Of the 189 possible causes of death listed, influenza ranked 20th. The five leading causes of death in 1917 were premature births, heart disease, stillbirths, Bright's disease (disease of the kidneys) and pneumonia. The flu represented a little more than one percent of the total deaths recorded statewide (4,706 deaths) in 1917.

By December 1918 the total number of deaths via the flu in South Dakota skyrocketed to 1,847, ranking influenza as the No. 1 killer of South Dakotans ­ a ranking held for the next two years. The flu accounted for 28 percent of the total number of deaths (6,728) in South Dakota in 1918.

"The scary thing is that the Spanish flu hit South Dakota in early October of 1918," Reitzel said. "The Department of Vital Statistics calculated its findings at the end of December. That means a vast majority of the 1,847 flu-related deaths occurred in a three-month time span."

The counties with the most flu-related deaths in 1918 were as follows: Lawrence (145), Brown (118), Beadle (98) and Minnehaha (95).

In late November, Gov. Peter Norbeck was diagnosed with the Spanish flu. He was admitted to St. Joseph's Hospital in Deadwood, having contracted the flu on a business trip in Lusk, Wyo. The governor had a fever of 103 degrees, though his condition was never deemed critical. He was released after spending a few days in the hospital.

Throughout the state, churches, theatres, schools, pool halls, parlors and other public gathering places were closed indefinitely. The flu escalated to the point that the superintendent of the South Dakota Board of Health declared that, "In any community where the disease is prevalent, public gatherings of all kinds are forbidden." In Rapid City, the mayor decreed that all funerals must be conducted in the "open air," to prevent the spread of the flu at funerals. In some cities a doctor's note was required as proof that you had fully recovered from the flu, thus allowing you to walk in public.

"It would be safe to say that the state went through a period of organized chaos," Reitzel said. "Civic officials were trying any and every means necessary to end the spread of the flu."

Death as a result of influenza continued throughout the state. The following year, 1919, there were 700 deaths via flu (14 percent of total deaths) and in 1920 there were 551 deaths from influenza (10 percent of total deaths).

"It should also be noted that several individuals contracted the Spanish flu but died from pneumonia." Reitzel added. "If you calculate the number of influenza deaths in 1918 plus those who died from pneumonia, the total number of deaths rises to 2,391 or 36 percent of total deaths in South Dakota for 1918. To put it another way, if you take 36 percent of the total number of deaths in the state for 2003 (7,109) you would have had 2,559 flu and pneumonia related deaths in South Dakota for that year."

There are still several questions that remain unanswered regarding the 1918 Spanish flu in South Dakota, Reitzel said.

"We know how many people died of the flu, but we don't know how many contracted the flu and survived," he said. "An overall view of newspaper accounts forms the opinion that several people contracted the flu, a number of people died, but several people survived. It appears you had two outcomes if you contracted the flu — either you died within three days to a week or you lived."

More of Reitzel's research regarding the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic can be found on the State Historical Society's Web site at www.sdhistory.org.

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