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The Spanish Flu Centennial — How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Affected Prudential Agents

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Life insurance agents can help their customers in many ways. One thing they can do is protect a customer’s loved ones against some of the financial impact from the customer’s sudden death. Here’s how that worked during the peak of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which began attracting attention as Americans were celebrating the end of World War I, when the United States had a population of about 100 million, and the world had a population of about 2 billion.

We took these excerpts from The Prudential: A Story of Human Security, a book by Earl Chapin May and Will Oursler that was published in 1950 and now appears to be out of print.

We have kept most of the original style choices intact.

As soon as the extent of the epidemic began to be clear, orders went out from the home office: Pay all claims as quickly as possible. Cut all red tape. Clear the claims within twenty-four hours — don’t let them pile up.

(Related: Our Flu Vaccine Stockpiles Are Full of Expired Components: Tammy Baldwin)

Across the nation, Prudential offices stayed open late into the night, and superintendents and cashiers, often wearing gauze protectors over their faces, paid out claims as fast as it was humanly possible. Field claim payments were being made so rapidly that in more than one instance there was neither time to reconcile nor time to replenish the company’s bank balance.

But the reputation of Prudential was such that even when the accounts were overdrawn, banks continued to honor checks until new deposits had been received. Only the fact that the field superintendents were able to pay a substantial part of the weekly premium claims made it possible for the company to keep up with the avalanche of claims that poured in from every part of the country.

Back in the home office in Newark, it was the same story. Hundreds of workers from all departments were enlisted in a special drive. Night after night they worked clearing the rush of claims which came in great stuffed mailbags from the field offices. The claim papers were fumigated on arrival, distributed among the workers, and matched with home office papers after tedious hours of searching through the files….

Typists couldn’t keep up with the demand for work; clerks spent entire days writing checks and records and documents in longhand…

As a result of influenza deaths in 1918 and 1919, Prudential paid upward of 85,000 claims for a total of more than $20,000,000.

— Read The Spanish Flu Centennial: A Look at Influenza’s Continuing Pandemic Riskon ThinkAdvisor.

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