100 years ago: Flu kills 17 Wilton residents

One hundred years ago — and 15 years before the development of the first flu vaccination — an influenza virus hit the town of Wilton in the fall of 1918, resulting in the deaths of 17 residents over the course of several months, according to town historian Bob Russell’s book, Wilton, Connecticut: Three Generations of People, Places, and Progress.

The epidemic in Wilton was part of a worldwide influenza spread known as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be “one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in recorded history.”

The pandemic was caused by an H1N1 virus with “genes of avian origin,” according to the CDC, and a unique feature of the pandemic was its “high mortality in healthy people.” An estimated 30% of the world’s population was infected during the pandemic and at least 50 million people died.

The first recorded cases of the outbreak in Connecticut appeared among Navy personnel in New London in September 1918, according to a ConnecticutHistory.org article by Tasha Caswell.

From there, the outbreak appeared to have spread to Windham and Tolland counties before continuing south and west to the counties of New Haven, Hartford, Litchfield and Fairfield, according to Caswell.

With no vaccine to protect against infection and no antibiotics to treat associated secondary bacterial infections at the time, control efforts were “limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions” like “isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings,” according to the CDC.

By Oct. 25, 1918, the State Public Health Service had reported 180,000 cases of the flu in Connecticut, according to Caswell’s article.

Strong Comstock, Wilton’s health officer at the time, reported 149 cases of influenza in October and November of 1918, according to Russell’s book.

According to an article published in The Bridgeport Telegram on Oct. 21, 1918, Comstock was not “excited over the ‘flu epidemic.’” He did not close Wilton’s schoolhouses, but did require children with “signs of colds” to be “sent home until fully recovered,” according to the article.

Two Wilton teachers did, however, fall ill that month — Miss Anderson from the Cannondale School and Miss Wildman from the Chestnut Hill School — according to The Bridgeport Telegram.

According to Russell’s book, the first person to die in Wilton from the flu during the epidemic was 41-year-old Katherine DeNike. Others included 34-year-old Frederica Meyer Keeler, 34-year-old Frank Bouton and 31-year-old Carolyn Gilbert.

Former Wilton residents Frank Butler, a Navy veteran, and Percy Ackerman, former Democratic Town Committee chair, were among those who died elsewhere from the flu, according to Russell. Both were brought back and buried in Wilton.

By the time the flu subsided in February 1919, it had killed 8,500 Connecticut residents.

The 1918 H1N1 virus has since been “synthesized and evaluated,” according to the CDC, but the properties that made the virus so devastating are “not well understood.”