The Spanish Flu Pandemic in New Mexico 1918-1920

On Sunday, November 15, 2020 former state historian and now State Records Administrator Rick Hendricks, Ph.D,. presented The Spanish Flu Pandemic in New Mexico 1918-1920. The presentation was live-streamed on the Albuquerque Historical Society’s Facebook Page.

1918 Photo of ill patients at Camp Funston, KS at Camp
Soldiers ill with Spanish influenza in 1918 at a hospital ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, site of the first recorded American cases of Spanish Influenza.

The end of World War I in 1918 coincided with the onset of the Spanish Influenza, which spread across the globe and devastated populations world-wide with estimates ranging from 50 to 100 million deaths. The pandemic reached New Mexico in fall of 1918; by the end of October as many as fifteen thousand New Mexicans had fallen ill and perhaps a thousand were dead, although the exact number will never be known.

Spanish Flu has been described as an equal opportunity killer, but it preyed on people in the prime of life rather than the young and old, as is the case with a typical flu. Native Americans and Mexican Americans suffered higher mortality than other groups in New Mexico. In Mexico as many as 500,000 deaths have been attributed to Spanish Flu. Mexican laborers crossed into southern New Mexico where they lived in overcrowded conditions and were of prime age to fall victim to influenza.

In Albuquerque, with a population of around 15,000 there were 923 confirmed case of Spanish Flu and only 167 deaths. Such a low mortality was probably a result of measures the city government took. In the city all public gatherings were prohibited, and quarantined homes were identified by signage.

The state of public health in New Mexico contributed to the impact of Spanish Flu. The pandemic arrived only six years after statehood, and New Mexico was the only state without a department of health. Instead, each county had county health officers, which meant there was no statewide authority that could mandate disease prevention measures. County health officers’ limited powers included quarantine, investigation, and the ability to appointment health inspectors. The main strategy was two-pronged: try to convince local officials to follow practical measures such as banning public gatherings and complaining when they failed to follow recommendations. The problem of dealing with infectious disease was exacerbated by the fact that some New Mexico counties had no resident physician.

Photo of Rick Hendricks, Ph.D.Rick Hendricks, PhD, is the New Mexico state records administrator. He was state historian from 2010 until 2019. He received his BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1977 and his PhD from the University of New Mexico in 1985. He also studied history of Spain in the Americas at the Universidad de Sevilla.

Rick is a former editor of the Vargas Project at the University of New Mexico. After the conclusion of the Vargas Project, he worked at New Mexico State University, most notably on the Durango Microfilming Project, helping to produce and edit a 1,400-page guide to the collection. At NMSU Rick also taught courses in colonial Latin America and Mexican history.

Rick has written extensively on the history of the American Southwest and Mexico. He has written, cowritten, and coedited more than twenty books. His most recent publications include two chapters on Freemasonry in The Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple: Freemasonry, Architecture, and Theatre, edited by Wendy Waszut-Barrett and Jo Whaley (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2018), and a book entitled Pueblo Indian Sovereignty: Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), coauthored with his long-time writing partner, Malcolm Ebright. Malcolm and Rick are finishing a book on Pablo Abeita of Isleta Pueblo, and Rick recently completed a manuscript on a nineteenth-century Spanish priest, Father Antonio Severo Borrajo.

Image of historical record of Earl Dilworth Mason
Historical Record of 1st Lieutenant Earl Mason of Tyrone, NM who died of influenza on Oct 29, 1918.