1918: How Bethlehem Steel fought a war and pestilence

It’s a nice jolt when you learn something new about a subject you thought you knew pretty much about.

That happened to me recently when my wife and I watched a fascinating live-streamed presentation on the Facebook page of the National Museum of Industrial History. The speaker was James Higgins, a historian of medicine who’s an expert on the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

Drill press operators at Bethlehem Steel during WWI

Women operating drill presses at Bethlehem Steel during the First World War

He talked about how Bethlehem Steel took a lead in fighting the spread of the virus, which killed more than 67,000 Pennsylvanians and some 50 million people worldwide. At the time, south Bethlehem was packed with 31,000 workers making guns, shells, armor plate, submarine parts and other materiel for the First World War.

The company was the No. 1 munitions maker in America and had been frenetically serving the Allied cause since the war began in 1914. When the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine in 1915, the great passenger liner was carrying 1,250 cases of artillery shells headed for the British army. (That piece of info comes from Erik Larson’s book Dead Wake.)

I knew about the steelmaker’s lucrative role in the war effort from my work on Forging America: The Story of Bethlehem Steel, a 117-page special section published by The Morning Call in December 2003 as the once-mighty corporation was passing out of existence. It was published again as a softcover book in 2010.

What I didn’t know was that the company went to great lengths to protect its workers and the people of Bethlehem from the deadly virus, and how that was done with commendable results.

As Higgins told it, the head of Bethlehem Steel’s medical division, Dr. Loyal Shoudy, visited Camp Devens, Massachusetts, the first major military camp to be hit by the second wave of ultra-virulent flu in the fall of 1918. A hundred men were dying there each day. It was clear to Shoudy that people couldn’t take care of themselves during the outbreak; they had to be hospitalized.

At a City Council meeting near the end of September, Bethlehem’s leaders realized that the virus was catastrophic and would come to their town. They would have to prepare. The mayor, Archibald Johnston, also was first vice president of Bethlehem Steel, so he could move the bureaucracy in both the city and at the steel plant. Shoudy would direct the medical efforts.

The company and the military, which had close ties to the plant, asked the state to impose a crowd ban – social distancing — in the Lehigh Valley. Pennsylvania’s acting health commissioner, Benjamin Royer, liked the idea and went even further, imposing a ban all across the state.

Bethlehem closed schools, including Lehigh University and Moravian College, and houses of worship. Police raided cafes and hotels to keep people apart.

In the Northampton Heights neighborhood, Bethlehem Steel did something extraordinary. The first week of October, it opened an emergency hospital — not just for its workers, but for everyone in Bethlehem. Shoudy managed it. The company covered all of the costs, including cots, sheets, medicine, food and pay for the doctors and nurses. Army doctors were brought over from Camp Crane in Allentown, the training site for ambulance drivers headed to France. Homes and boardinghouses were searched for sick people, who were taken to the hospital for professional medical care.

“In my estimation,” Higgins said, “that saved dozens and dozens of lives.”

Where exactly was the emergency hospital? Apparently, Higgins said, the site was paved over about 60 years ago to make room for a basic oxygen furnace.

Bethlehem’s war production never faltered, and Bethlehem had the lowest death rate among cities its size for flu and pneumonia. Its mortality rate was far lower than that of mill towns in western Pennsylvania, such as Braddock and Homestead.

“Bethlehem Steel made little or no effort to ameliorate the plight of its workers and their families during any other epidemic in the late 19th and early 20th century,” Higgins said. “I think more than anything else, what Bethlehem Steel wanted to do was protect production. If you protect production, you protect profits.”

To see Higgins’ hour-long presentation, go to the NMIH Virtual Museum and scroll down to “Bethlehem Steel, Industry, and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic with James Higgins.” Click on the video. The host is Glenn Koehler, who handles marketing and public relations for the museum, which is on the old Bethlehem Steel site.

You’ll learn a lot. How Bethlehem Steel fought the pandemic of 1918-19 is a lesson that resonates today, as we struggle to blunt the contagion of the killer coronavirus.

4 responses to “1918: How Bethlehem Steel fought a war and pestilence

  1. Good post, David. It illustrates a sharp contrast with the poor judgments by Philadelphia leaders, where they allowed a huge WWI parade to be held. The 2018 edition of Smithsonian magazine has a good article about Philadelphia’s disastrous outcomes. Thankfully, my grandparents survived the 1918 flu while living in Philadelphia.
    I hope you and Mary are staying healthy.


    • Hey Elliot, great to hear from you and thanks for the blog note. Higgins talked about the Philly parade and how careless the city was during the pandemic. He said Allentown handled the response poorly as well. (The city leaders didn’t want to be told what to do, because that smacks of “Prussianism,” which we were in the war to crush.) Glad to hear your grandparents got through it okay. If they hadn’t, you might have had some trouble getting into this world, I imagine.
      Mary and I are well and doing fine. I hope you’re the same.


  2. Dear David, I am sorry I did not see this sooner. thank you very much for the kind review. Though I don’t believe you and I had the pleasure of meeting, I am a neighbor of Connie Cowen whose husband worked at The Morning Call for decades.


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