SSND during the time of the “Spanish flu”

We are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government officials have ordered people to stay at home, schools have been cancelled, millions of people have lost their jobs and wearing face masks in public is the new normal. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have died from the virus. This feels new and unfamiliar, but this is not the first time the world has experienced a pandemic.

The deadliest pandemic in human history was the 1918 “Spanish flu.” In just 15 months, it infected an estimated one-third of the world’s population and killed between 50 to 100 million people. The 1918 strain of influenza was unusual for several reasons: it was highly contagious, it was particularly deadly for otherwise healthy adults in their 20s and 30s and many victims developed pneumonia and heliotrope cyanosis (a condition where the lungs fill with thick blackish liquid).

Doctors and scientists did not know what caused the illness and did not know how to treat it. Antivirals and antibiotics did not exist in 1918, so treatment was limited to home remedies and public health measures such as quarantines and the closure of public venues like schools and churches. In addition, many doctors and nurses were working in Europe as part of the war effort, causing shortages of needed medical personnel.

Influenza hit the United States hardest in September, October and November of 1918. In October alone, more than 100,000 Americans died from the flu and secondary infections, like pneumonia. In fact, the disease was so severe that the average life expectancy in the United States fell by almost 12 years.


A sign displayed at an Industrial Harvester Company plant during the 1918-19 flu pandemic directs workers on ways to avoid influenza infection. Photo credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

A chart of influenza deaths in the 1918-1919 flu pandemic shows weekly accumulation of deaths from all causes above the norm. Photo credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine (public domain)

The SSND and the “Spanish Flu”

In 1918, there were approximately 4,236 School Sisters of Notre Dame (professed sisters and novices) living in the United States and Canada. The sisters were affected by and experienced the pandemic in much the same way as the rest of the world – they worried about loved ones, they nursed the sick and they mourned their dead.

Sisters at each mission location were required to write chronicles, or an annual account of major events. The chronicles provide an interesting view into this period in history by describing how the sisters experienced the pandemic. The following are a series of stories or chronicle entries that describe the SSND experience of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Click on the location to learn more.