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The 1918-1919 Influenza in Minnesota

By Molly Riley & Elaine Settergren

Victory Celebration Postponed in Minneapolis due to Influenza - Minneapolis Morning Tribune, November 13, 1918.Outbreaks of influenza (flu), poliomyelitis (polio), diphtheria, and typhoid fever have all impacted Minnesota, especially in the earlier days of statehood. Amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have wondered about the state’s response to the influenza outbreak of 1918-1919.  

During that outbreak, the first case of flu was discovered in Minnesota in September 1918 and cases peaked during the fall of 1918. In The People’s Heath: A History of Public Health in Minnesota to 1948, author Philip D. Jordan chronicles how flu impacted the state.   

He describes measures taken then that echo our current circumstances in many ways. In 1918, large public gatherings in churches and theaters were prohibited for a time, and health officials strongly recommended schools close, though not all schools did. Dr. Henry Bracken, the head of the State Board of Health, ordered that flu patients could not ride trains without wearing a mask. According to Jordan, public places in Minneapolis, like saloons and soda fountains, remained closed during Armistice Day celebrations in November. 

The Legislature did not meet in 1918 because they only met in odd-numbered years in those days. In 1919, the Legislature met in regular session from January 7 to April 24. Although the Legislature passed a few bills related to public health during the 1919 session (see Laws of Minnesota 1919, chap. 38 and chap. 479), we haven’t been able to determine if those laws were passed in direct response to the flu outbreak. Likewise, there is little reported in the paper about any direct actions taken by the Legislature in 1919 to address the outbreak. In those days, it seems to have been more common for local health departments, sometimes in conjunction with the State Board of Health, to play a leading role in responding to public health issues.

These sources offer a deeper dive into how the influenza outbreak of 1918-1919 impacted Minnesota: