Chandler's experience with COVID-19 is reminiscent of a past pandemic: Spanish influenza

Pictured here is a postcard from Art Price to Dr. A.J. Chandler—the city's founder—from Camp Funston, Kansas, a military base within Haskell County, Kansas, which many experts believe served as the origin for U.S. spread of the Spanish flu. (Courtesy Chandler Museum)
Pictured here is a postcard from Art Price to Dr. A.J. Chandler—the city's founder—from Camp Funston, Kansas, a military base within Haskell County, Kansas, which many experts believe served as the origin for U.S. spread of the Spanish flu. (Courtesy Chandler Museum)

Pictured here is a postcard from Art Price to Dr. A.J. Chandler—the city's founder—from Camp Funston, Kansas, a military base within Haskell County, Kansas, which many experts believe served as the origin for U.S. spread of the Spanish flu. (Courtesy Chandler Museum)

The current coronavirus pandemic has parallels—a lot of parallels—to the most recent pandemic the city had experienced prior to this past March, the Spanish influenza of 1918.

Chandler Museum Administrator Jody Crago said when the Spanish flu hit Chandler in October of 1918, many of the precautions the city and state put in place were similar to those for the coronavirus.

"They had done all sorts of things to control the spread," Crago said. "They opened up a hospital in the schoolhouse as well as the pool hall down in Goodyear—which is what it was called back then—but now, we call that Ocotillo. It helped with the spread a little, but in the middle of November, the Chandler Arizonan was suggesting that maybe the outbreak had been tamed by canceling gatherings and preventing people from doing things. But shortly thereafter, it continued unabated."

There were 50 new cases reported in five days just after that, Crago said, and the influenza "ravaged" the city through January and into February.

Crago said the 1918 flu pandemic started in January 1918 in Haskell County, Kansas, according to a majority of experts, at a place called Camp Funston. Infected soldiers returning from Europe mingled with troops stationed at Camp Funston, which resulted in the spread of the virus as military units moved around the country and soldiers returned home.


The mortality rate of Spanish influenza was 2.5%, making it 250 times more deadly than the average flu virus, according to an article from ChandlerPedia. It reduced life expectancy by 10 years.

Within a week of the initial report October 11, 1918, of the flu in Chandler, the Chandler Arizonan reported that 75 people in the city were sick. By October 25, three people had died from the flu, Crago said.

"When you look at it, especially in Chandler's specific situation, they did many of the same things we are doing now," Crago said. "Schools were closed, public gatherings were canceled, and people wearing masks became a regular thing. It's certainly very reminiscent of our current situation."

Chandler also had a unique victim among the 1918 flu epidemic: city founder Dr. A.J. Chandler's ostriches.

Chandler's founder was big in the ostrich industry, Crago said. With World War I, the ostrich industry had already suffered because of changes in fashion. Dr. Chandler took another hit when his ostriches began to contract and eventually die from the flu.

"It was the end of Dr. Chandler's ostriches," Crago said.

Crago said it is unknown how many people died in Chandler because of the Spanish flu, largely because of censorship—tied to World War I—that occurred at the beginning of the flu's life in the country.

"We were in war; we didn't want the enemy [to know] we were weakened," Crago said. "But in the fall of 1918, we needed to remind people of all the things they needed to do to not get sick. Flag-raising ceremonies were canceled so people weren't by each other. They closed a sewing room where people were sewing bandages because they didn't want people to get sick. It attacked workers, wealthy people—it didn’t matter whether you were a farm worker or a business owner. You could be affected by this disease."

Crago said there is much to learn from the past and from this chapter in Chandler—and the world's—history.

"History is one of these things that provides a roadmap to us," Crago said. "We can always look back and see what folks have done in the past. It doesn’t mean it will continue in the future, but it can certainly inform decisions we make now."

Crago said that for her, studying the community's past has helped to provide a glimmer of optimism in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's interesting to learn things that have affected our community and the stories and people that have made the best of a horrible situation," Crago said. "There is a comfort in knowing that we, as a community, banded together and survived the 1918 flu epidemic by following safety measures. We can do the same again now."
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