Seattle’s quick thinking in 1918 flu pandemic - and now - credited with saving lives

VIDEO: Seattle places city under quarantine during flu pandemic of 1918

SEATTLE — Seattle's quick decision to place the entire city under quarantine a century ago likely saved thousands of lives during the flu pandemic of 1918.

That is one of the lessons from the Spanish Flu believed to be saving lives today.

Social distancing. Wearing masks. Those are considered the best tools for fighting a pandemic.

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A historian on Vashon Island says humankind learned those lessons the hard way a century ago.

“The thing that has struck me from the very beginning, something I hadn’t really understood before, is how much you don’t know what is going to happen.”

That is an unfamiliar feeling for historian Nancy Bristow. After all, she wrote the book, ‘American Pandemic,’ nearly a hundred years after the 1918 flu that claimed a hundred million lives across the globe.

Now, this University of Puget Sound professor is keeping her social distance on her Vashon Island farm.

She says there are many similarities between then and now.

“In terms of the ways in which it’s landing inequitably, the ways in which social distancing is actually a really valuable practice,” said Dr. Bristow, “the ways in which we were terribly ill-prepared.”

Seattle benefitted from the slow spread of the pandemic across the country. The flu first showed up at the military encampment on the University of Washington in October of 1918.

Within days, trolley conductors were wearing masks, the city went into quarantine.

And authorities across the country started banning common activities, like public drinking cups and spitting.

“Those that had public spitting ordinances like Seattle, for instance, enforced that law much more rigorously during the pandemic,” she said. "

Bristow says she hopes the coronavirus pandemic will teach new lessons that will last into the next century.

“Will this be the moment that we will say that everyone should have access to quality health care?” she asked. "Will this be the moment when we say we can no longer allow who your great grandparents were to determine the kind of opportunity that you have for education?

Lessons, she says, will make this a better world for all citizens to live.