By now, most Americans have heard the cautionary tale of Philadelphia’s decision to hold a huge patriotic parade with nearly 100,000 spectators in the fall of 1918, a super-spreader event blamed for the city’s overwhelming outbreak of flu in the following days. Within 72 hours of the parade, all hospital beds in the city were full. Within six weeks, more than 12,000 people died, amounting to a death every five minutes.
During the current pandemic, Philadelphia’s 1918 response has become the poster child of how not to handle an outbreak. But the “Spanish flu” certainly wasn’t the first infectious disease the city had ever faced, and historian Timothy Kent Holliday makes the case that Philadelphia was well equipped for outbreaks decades and even centuries earlier.
Holliday earned his Ph.D this spring with his dissertation entitled “Morbid Sensations: Intimacy, Coercion, and Epidemic Disease in Philadelphia, 1793-1854.” His research looks at epidemics in Philadelphia and the role of what he calls intimate care in managing those diseases in institutions, hospitals, prisons, and quarantine stations like the Lazaretto.
Penn Today spoke with Holliday about why he thinks Philadelphia was better prepared for cholera in 1832 than it was nearly a century later when the flu landed at the Navy Yard, and what lessons citizens and governments can take from comparing the two outbreaks.