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A look back at the Rochester flu pandemic of 1918

Healthcare workers at Rochester General Hospital create a makeshift ward to treat flu patients. (Photo: Albert R. Stone Negative Collection at the Rochester Museum & Science Center)

(WHAM) -- Picture it: Rochester, 1918. A bustling city of about a quarter million people. The government was moving towards prohibition. Women were about to vote in their first state election and World War I was underway.

On the home front another battle was just beginning.

"The hospitals were absolutely filled. We're talking quarters and alcoves and everything with beds,” said Teresa Lehr.

In late September of 1918 the first cases of a deadly influenza would arrive in Rochester. Nursing students were the first to fall ill.

"I think it started with two admissions of influenza, then it grew to four. Eventually, 50 of the hospital personnel were taking up hospital beds,” said Lehr.

Theresa Lehr is a retired professor and author. Her latest book, "Black Velvet Band," is inspired by the letters of a student nurse at Rochester General during the pandemic. Lehr says hospitals were already short staffed because of the war.

"It drained physicians, the interns, the residents from the hospitals. The people who were there most of the time,” said Lehr. "They stopped doing anything but emergency work and accepted influenza patients."

One of those patients was a young mother from the Joseph Avenue neighborhood. Leah Rosenberg was 27-years-old when she fell ill.

"I think it was very quick, maybe a matter of a couple weeks and she was gone,” said Lynda Newman, Rosenberg’s granddaughter.

Leah Rosenberg and six other family members died from the flu. Lynda's mother, who was just 4-years-old at the time, was adopted by an aunt and uncle.

"I think she looked back thinking it was scary because here she was being taken away from her mom, her dad and her brother and sister,” said Newman.

By the end of October, it's estimated 450 people had died in Rochester. The city was at a standstill. Churches, theaters and schools were closed.

"That left a whole team of teachers idle so the teachers were put to work. The male teachers went out and picked fruit on the farms because you still had a war going on, you still had to feed those troops,” said Lehr.

The health crisis was chronicled by Albert Stone, a photographer for the Rochester Herald.

"It really gives a slice of life of what Rochester was in that time period,” said Lauren Tagliaferro, Collections Planning Specialist at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

Stone's negatives have been digitized by the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

Some of the photos take you inside Rochester General Hospital during the pandemic.

"They had to actually add an extra row of beds in the men's ward at the hospital because they had so many people coming in,” said Tagliaferro.

Other pictures show men disinfecting trolley cars downtown.

"Gentlemen would come in and spray down the poles that you would hang on to, all of the seats and the windows,” said Tagliaferro.

It's estimated 30,000 Rochesterians fell ill during the pandemic and more than 1,000 died. Lehr says because not all cases were reported, it’s possible the toll was even higher.

If you would like to explore the Albert Stone Collection click here.

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