As each summer rolled around during the first half of the 20th century, parents, children and health officials dreaded outbreaks of poliomyelitis, commonly called polio. This was especially true in New York City, where people lived in such close proximity to each other. The polio virus is spread by person-to-person contact, is extremely contagious and can affect the spinal cord and brain. In many cases it causes paralysis and can be fatal. Polio was often referred to as “infantile paralysis,” because it was especially prevalent in children, though people of all ages could contract the disease.
We all have heard warnings about the flu season. It seems to be following a typical pattern as occurs almost every decade—1947, 1957, 1968, 1977…But there is an outlier in the routine: the flu pandemic of 1918 which killed 55 million people around the world and is considered the deadliest health crisis in modern history and perhaps, ever.
1918 began in a regular manner. New Yorkers were focused on the Great War that raged overseas, food rationing and other mundane issues.
Throughout the early and mid-1900s, dairy products were a significant source of foodborne illnesses. Hundreds of children died due to the consumption of milk, leading to the 1911 creation of milk stations that dispensed free pasteurized milk. During the 1930s and 40s the New York City Department of Health, under commissioners Shirley W. Wynne (1928-1933) and John L. Rice (1934-1942), took many steps to regulate the production and storage of dairy products, which were regularly consumed in high quantities by New Yorkers of all ages. Milk and ice cream were of particular concern.