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Influenza epidemic of 1918 killed 72 in Cottonwood County alone

An estimated 50 million people died of the flu around the world in 1918 and 1919.

World War I soldiers from Windom (Cottonwood County), 1917.

The 1918 influenza epidemic had a devastating effect on communities across Minnesota, including those in Cottonwood County. Over the course of five months (October 1918–February 1919), seventy-two residents of the county died from the virus or from pneumonia-related complications.

About 900 young men from Cottonwood County enlisted in the military after the entry of the United States into World War I in 1917. Over thirty of them died, but not only from combat action. Another war was already raging — the war against the influenza pandemic that was sweeping the world.

Approximately sixteen young men from Cottonwood County died from influenza or from a combination of influenza and pneumonia symptoms while in the military; thirteen of them died from influenza while living in training camps. The first, Private William H. Unrau of Bingham Lake, died during training at Camp Dodge in Iowa on October 13, 1918. In general, the influenza pandemic infected one out of four members of the armed forces and proved to be more deadly than combat.

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In 1918, the transmission of influenza was a mystery for many Cottonwood County residents. As a result, local education about the virus was a crucial part of the community’s response to the epidemic. An article published in the Cottonwood County Citizen in October 1918 warned that the disease was contagious (transmitted by air) and could occur at any season of the year. Influenza victims showed symptoms more severe than those associated with a cold and it developed more rapidly. Most patients, it explained, experienced dizziness, nausea, and a fever between 100 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by chills and a reduced pulse.

A second article, published in the Mountain Lake View in the same month, instructed citizens to isolate flu victims to contain related germs and limit their activity. Warmth, fresh air, and plenty of food and water, it added, were crucial for recovery. Relatives nursing their loved ones could administer quinine, aspirin, and Dover’s powder (a powder containing ipecac and opium, used as an anodyne, diaphoretic, and antispasmodic).

By October, the disease had entered Cottonwood County. Local patients who needed hospitalization were sent to Ruse Hospital — a property in Windom with living quarters for flu victims (the property’s owner, Sophia Ruse, had bought the building in 1905 and opened it as a hospital in 1906). The six-room, two-story building operated past its capacity throughout the epidemic. One of its physicians, F. R. Wieser, was the only doctor in Cottonwood County who did not contract the flu while caring for patients. Wieser’s colleagues at Ruse Hospital, Dr. Ludwig Sogge and Dr. Joseph H. Dudley, became sick but survived.

The epidemic touched families in towns and townships countywide. Churches and schools closed, bans were placed on public gatherings, and parents kept their children at home. Families organizing funerals for their loved ones requested closed caskets. Over a period of three days in November, the mayor of Mountain Lake — one of the largest communities in the county — closed schools with afternoon classes as well as church services and general public gatherings.

An estimated 50 million people died of the flu around the world in 1918 and 1919. Twenty-eight percent of all Americans contracted the disease, and 675,000 of them died. By the spring of 1919, the epidemic had declined, but the disease had already killed 10,000 Minnesotans, including seventy-two residents of Cottonwood County.

MNopedia Editor’s note: A pandemic is not equivalent to an epidemic. In an epidemic, a disease affects large numbers of people within a relatively local community, such as a city or county or state. In a pandemic, a disease affects people across a broader area, such as a nation or continent. Therefore, the sections of this article that refer to the worldwide influenza crisis of 1918 use the word pandemic; those that refer to the spread of influenza inside Minnesota, including the title, use the word epidemic.

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