Women faced great risks, but volunteered to save lives in Harrisburg during the 1918 flu epidemic

They weren’t trained for the crisis facing them in October 1918, but the women of Harrisburg rose to the occasion. The capital of the Keystone State was in the grip of the 1918 influenza pandemic and thousands of the city’s residents were falling ill. Undertakers ran out of coffins and laborers to dig graves and the dead piled up inside their morgues.

Despite great dangers from the diseases they volunteered to combat, women from all walks of life put on aprons and masks and arrived at Harrisburg’s emergency hospital located within a school at the corner of Seneca and Fifth streets. They arrived with a mission to help everyone they could.

Inside the makeshift hospital, they cared for desperately sick and dying patients suffering from influenza and pneumonia that swept across America in October 1918. These volunteer nurses fulfilled the innumerable tasks required in an emergency hospital and assisted in caring for the dozens of orphaned children resulting from the epidemic.

They risked their own lives; across the nation, volunteer nurses and hospital attendants were falling ill from the diseases rife within the hospital and were dying at an alarming rate.

By the time the epidemic lifted and the Emergency Hospital in Harrisburg closed on November 5, 1918, 209 patients had been treated for influenza and its related illnesses in the facility. Within the Emergency Hospital, only 15 patients died. Across the city, more than 470 people perished during the epidemic.

In the weeks after the hospital closed and a quarantine on the city’s public places was lifted, the Harrisburg Telegraph received a letter lauding the women of Harrisburg for their efforts during the dark month of October 1918.

Women’s Work in the Emergency Hospital

To the Editor of the Telegraph: 

Now that the Emergency Hospital at Fifth and Seneca streets has closed, I wish to call attention to the splendid work rendered there by women of Harrisburg during the influenza epidemic. Nurses, teachers, stenographers, housekeepers, businesswomen, High School girls, Red Cross aids and others gave the full measure of strength and devotion to the care of the sick. The public school teachers deserve especial mention. They outnumbered all other professions and by their faithful attendance and efficient service made possible the smooth running of the Hospital. 

Work in the kitchen and in the wards entailed long hours, arduous labor and grave risk of catching influenza, pneumonia and certain other dread diseases with which some of the patients were afflicted. 

The most revolting tasks were performed with a smile. Everything was done to promote cleanliness. The orphaned babies in the children’s ward were mothered with loving care. The entire hospital was pervaded with an atmosphere of willing service and reflected the spirit of the Great Physician who said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” 


The efforts of these noble volunteers saved countless lives and their perseverance in the face of death and disease stands as a remarkable record in the history of Harrisburg. But they weren’t alone. Across the nation during the deadly autumn of 1918, volunteers showed up to help millions of people suffering from the disease and its consequences.

Harrisburg Hospital Then
The Emergency Hosptial at Fifth and Seneca streets in Harrisburg, 1918.
Harrisburg Hospital Today
The site of the Emergency Hospital in 2014. (Google Earth)

Featured image: From the October 23, 1918 edition of the Harrisburg Evening News

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