In the spring of 1918, a deadly strain of influenza began circling the globe. Within a year the virus killed between 30 and 50 million people worldwide and approximately 675,000 in the United States. The pandemic significantly affected even rural, sparsely populated areas. Approximately 5,000 Montanans died of influenza between August 1918 and June 1919, about one percent of the state’s population, and public health officials estimated that this number was, most likely, at the low end of the spectrum. Montana suffered one of the four highest mortality rates of all states; only Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Colorado recorded more influenza deaths per capita during the pandemic. The obvious geographic and cultural differences between these states raise the question as to why Montana suffered such a high mortality rate. Specifically, how did the state’s unique demographic, social, and cultural factors influence its pandemic experience?
Pandemic historian Alfred Crosby notes that “the states with the highest excess mortality rates…had little indeed in common economically or demographically, climatically or geographically.” However, individually, factors such as these significantly influenced mortality rates in each area. In Montana, demographics, economics, social beliefs and customs, and even climate were to blame for the state’s high mortality rate. The influenza virus of 1918-1919 was unique in that it showed a preference for young, healthy adults, especially males and immigrants. These demographic groups made up the majority of early twentieth-century Montana population, making the state especially susceptible. The economic pursuits that brought these individuals to Montana created an environment that made it difficult for them to prevent and treat influenza once it arrived. Rural agricultural communities often did not have medical providers nearby, and the living and working conditions in the state’s population centers sometimes jeopardized residents’ health, making them more susceptible to influenza. Public health officials instituted policies and measures to prevent the spread of the disease, but some independent-minded Montanans defied the orders, often to their own detriment. However, Montana’s dry climate presented public health officials with a unique challenge that, at the time, they did not realize. The virus’s ability to survive longer in low humidity made the dry years of 1918 and 1919 in Montana an ideal place for influenza to thrive.