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Downingtown and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

During the fall of 1918 the war in Europe was nearing its end but another battle was raging back home.  It was, according to the Downingtown Archive, “the greatest epidemic of sickness ever known,” and, the Archive further stated, “Downingtown is no exception.”

The Spanish influenza pandemic came in four waves between January 1918 and December 1920, infecting 500 million people around the world resulting in an estimated 50 to 100 million deaths.  Downingtown was mostly impacted during the second wave which hit the Borough (as well as all of Chester County) the hardest in October 1918.  

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This graph shows the monthly deaths in Downingtown from 1917 to 1919.  The impact of the influenza pandemic can be clearly seen in October 1918 when 38 persons died in the Borough.

Most Downingtown homes had at least one, if not multiple persons down with the flu.  About 1,500 cases were estimated to have occurred in the Borough, which was about four of every ten residents.  For most of October, public gatherings of any type were strictly prohibited by the Board of Health.  Schools, churches, hotels, lodges, and other meeting places were all closed.

In a normal month during the 1917-1919 period, there were an average of three deaths in Downingtown from all causes.  In October 1918, 38 deaths were recorded in the Borough, with 42% of them occurring over three days (October 13th-15th).  Nearly all of these were from influenza, or from pneumonia with influenza being a contributing factor.  Victims of the pandemic lived in all Borough neighborhoods, but Johnsontown was especially hard hit.  On Bradford Avenue alone there were six influenza-related deaths.

Downingtown Influenza Victims, October 1918

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The 38 deaths in Downingtown in October 1918 are plotted by the victim’s home on this modern Google Maps view.  The distribution is all throughout the Borough but a significant cluster is in Johnsontown, including six on Bradford Avenue alone.

Downingtown victims ranged in age from three month-old Stewart Nichols on Chestnut Street to 79 year-old David Parke on East Lancaster Avenue.  But what made this pandemic especially alarming were the number of victims in their 20s and 30s including:

  • Emily Deets, age 37, living at 120 Webster Avenue.  She left a husband and two children.

  • Edwin Dixon, age 33, living at 75 West Lancaster Avenue.  He was an electrician on the Pennsylvania Railroad who left a pregnant wife and three children.

  • Mabel Hughes, age 36, living at 121 Brandywine Avenue.  She left a husband and three children.

  • Alfred Cummins, age 36, a laborer at the Downingtown Iron Works who lived at 122 Bradford Avenue.

  • Mary Eachus, age 25, living at 219 Mary Street. She left a husband and daughter.

  • Catherine Beale, age 32, living at 207 Stuart Avenue.  She left a husband and two sons.

  • Gertrude Dougherty, age 19.  She lived with her parents at 154 Viaduct Avenue.

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