The Spanish Flu Outbreak of 1918: A Tale of Two Samoas
How quick thinking by a U.S. official saved thousands of lives from disease in an American territory — despite its non-American counterpart being decimated.
This piece is adapted from a recent piece of Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet. Here’s the original version.
For understandable reasons, Puerto Rico is perhaps the main U.S. territory on the minds of the American public at the moment. The island of 3.5 million has been utterly devastated by Hurricane Maria and it will likely be years before it’s back to a semblance of its normal self — a situation not being helped, to say the least, by the current president.
Tedium, of course, isn’t a news blog, but sometimes it helps to take news and highlight it through the frame of history.
With that in mind, I’d like to spend a moment discussing a time that quick thinking and coordination saved a lot of lives on a U.S. territory. The territory? American Samoa, one of just two territories south of the equator. (The other, Jarvis Island, is a guano acquisition.)
Almost exactly 100 years ago, the Pacific Ocean-based territory had been informed of the Spanish flu pandemic that was then circling the globe, leaving no stone unturned. Responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million people worldwide, it killed more people than World War I, a conflict that at that point was unprecedented in scope.
John Martin Poyer, the U.S. Navy-appointed governor of American Samoa, heard the news of the risk from this disease and immediately took steps to coordinate ships from the U.S. mainland to assist with what was expected to be a dramatic outbreak.
His strategy, effectively, was to quarantine anyone with the disease on the Navy ships, with the goal of isolating the problem. He was successful — not a single person in American Samoa died of the Spanish flu, one of just a few areas in the world where that could be said.
It certainly wasn’t the case in nearby Samoa. Robert Logan, the counterpart to Poyer in the territory, had similarly been appointed to his role by New Zealand, and he was in charge throughout World War I. Logan held wide latitude over how the territory was operated, and was the person who could have prevented the fast-spreading Spanish flu from taking hold of the Pacific lands. But unlike Poyer, he failed to control for the flu, allowing ships to dock unencumbered, leading the disease to quickly overtake Samoa. Within the span of just a few weeks, a fifth of the territory’s population had died.
Poyer took a hard-line approach to quarantining American Samoa, barring ships from Samoa, where the disease had taken hold, from visiting American Samoa — which upset Logan, after Poyer had refused a ship with mail from Samoa. Logan ended radio contact with the neighboring territory. Additionally, Poyer at one point offered access to the U.S. Navy’s medical care, including the quarantine ships. Logan, apparently misunderstanding the offer, refused, likely exacerbating the problem.
Poyer’s work was so impressive, especially in comparison to what Logan had done, that people living on Samoa had decided that they’d rather have the U.S. controlling their territory, rather than New Zealand. From a 1919 San Francisco Chronicle article on the subject:
The inhabitants of what was German Samoa say theirs is a land devastated by Influenza and the rhinoceros beetle. They look upon prosperous American Samoa, forty miles away, and threaten to rebel against the domination of New Zealand, according to private advices received by John Rothschild from Tutuila, American Samoa.
According to Rothschild’s information, the natives under New Zealand’s rule can’t see why Influenza should have taken one-fourth of their number and overlooked entirely the population of the American islands. And they can’t see, it is reported, why the rhinoceros beetle threatens to return the New Zealand group to the land of brush it was, while that same insect has been exterminated in American Samoa.
The situation was such that, per the article, Samoans had taken to singing a rewritten version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” pointing out the disparity between the two territories.
Poyer, who retired soon after the above article was published, died a hero in 1922. Logan, on the other hand, was blamed for souring relations between New Zealand and Samoa.
As an official New Zealand government website puts it: “Ironically, the most important years of Logan’s life were the least successful.”
Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. You’ve possibly run into one of my pieces on Motherboard, Atlas Obscura, Popular Mechanics, The Outline, or Neatorama.