Here is an article about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that appeared on March 31, 1997, in an ALM print publication, the Centennial Issue of National Underwriter.
“Almost all agents have had startling experiences during the last few months of soliciting people for insurance who in a few days were stricken with the ‘flu’ and died.”
National Underwriter, Jan. 16, 1919
Spanish influenza slipped into National Underwriter Oct. 17, 1918, when it killed George Viehmann, a New Jersey insurance company president who was on his way to address a fire underwriters meeting.
Three months later, the influenza “pandemic” had killed 550,000 in the United States and at least 22 million worldwide. Thomas Buckner, a New York Life Insurance Co. vice president, compared the pandemic to the plague and said it had killed more people than World I. The editors of National Underwriter compared it to the San Francisco earthquake and fire.
“Not so much because of the actual volume of claims, but chiefly because it took the best AND strongest of those protected with life insurance,” the editors wrote on Nov. 21, 1918, as the epidemic was winding down.
What Your Peers Are Reading
The “Spanish Lady” was different from most influenza epidemics that have struck before or since. Instead of decimating the weak the elderly, it picked out the best insurance risks. Healthy men between the ages of 25 and 35 were the most vulnerable of all.
The pandemic helped life insurers.
“You never before have had a more compelling argument for immediate life insurance, or a bigger opportunity to write a large volume of business than you have right now,” wrote R.W. Stevens, an executive at Illinois Life.
But the pandemic also planted long-lasting doubts about the ability of medical science to fight infectious disease. “We still don’t understand anything about why it happened,’ said Dr. Stephen Morse, a Columbia University epidemiologist, in a recent telephone interview.
Scientists offer no guarantees about their ability to prevent a similar pandemic from emerging in the future.
Back in 1918, doctors knew nothing about electronic microscopes, viruses or genetic engineering. But they had succeeded at pushing for improvements in sanitation, to keep “germs” from spreading, and they had made great strides in producing vaccines against diseases such as smallpox and rabies.
They also knew of the threat posted by influenza. In March 1918, Dr. Simon Flexner worried that contaminated saliva would spread flu among the American soldiers fighting in the War. “He characterized as a spitting nation,” National Underwriter said.
Historians say Spanish influenza probably started as a flu virus infecting Chinese ducks. The ducks infected pigs, and the pigs infected humans. The virus caused occasional pneumonia deaths in Europe and the United States in the spring of 1918. It began attracting more attention in the fall, when it got its name by killing 8 million people in Spain.
Fires, Congress and the War crowded most news of Spanish influenza out of National Underwriter until Oct. 24, 1918. The Oct. 24 issue carried an article about the flu infecting 82 members of the Cincinnati fire department and killing five.
The flu also slowed the Kentucky lumber trade, forced a postponement of the Southeastern Underwriters Association meeting, and killed at least six National Underwriter readers that week.
A week later, National Underwriter and its readers were treating the epidemic as a major story.
Insurance companies already were short-handed because of the War. Influenza menaced their remaining employees as mountains of death claims began to arrive.
“Some companies have had their employees watched carefully by medical directors and division heads and given instructions that anyone showing the slightest semblance of a cold must report immediately to the company doctor for examination,” National Underwriter said.
By Nov. 7, National Underwriter was using the term “pandemic,” a world that combines “epidemic” with a Greek word for “all.” Scientists called the Spanish influenza epidemic a pandemic because it seemed to be attacking all the people in the world.
A history of Prudential Life Insurance Co. published in 1950 said the pandemic led to a shortage of coffins and forced families to bury their own dead. Some Prudential benefits checks bounced simply because the company had too little time to shift cash into the right accounts. Banks honored the checks anyway because they knew Prudential had more than enough funds to cover any temporary shortfall.