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St. Louis' Response To The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic Was Lauded. Rightly So?

St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the 1918 Influenza epidemic.
Library of Congress
St. Louis Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

In determining the best guidelines for government action during the COVID-19 outbreak, city leaders and officials are looking at how different metros responded during the 1918 flu pandemic. The general consensus is that because St. Louis implemented more extensive quarantine measures, the area had a lower death rate than other cities — like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City.

In his latest piece, Chris Naffziger, who writes about history and architecture for St. Louis Magazine, wrote that while city officials managed to prevent the deaths of thousands during the pandemic of 1918 through 1920, St. Louis’ response to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic wasn't quite what we've been told.

“If you look to smaller, industrial cities in the Midwest, we did not do as well, and I think that probably had a lot to do with the very bad coal pollution,” Naffziger said Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air.

“I want to stress that by no means am I saying that we should not learn the lessons [of St. Louis’ response to the 1918 pandemic],” he continued. “What Dr. Starkloff taught us from 1918 is still an incredibly valuable lesson about social distancing; it does work. However, if we look at Minneapolis, Minneapolis had a far lower rate of infection and death than St. Louis and, actually, several other Midwestern cities did as well.”

Dr. Max Starkloff served as St. Louis’ health commissioner during the 1918 pandemic. His approach emphasizing social distancing was largely credited for helping to lower the city’s death rate. 

Hear Sarah Fenske’s conversation with Naffziger about his work digging into the history of St. Louis during that moment in time:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.