Asian flu epidemic of 1957 killed over a million worldwide but only 65 in Baltimore

The Asian flu that swept into Maryland in the fall of 1957, which was the second major influenza outbreak of the 20th century, after the 1918-1919 pandemic, killed an estimated one to two million worldwide, but only 65 in Baltimore.

The first outbreak of the flu, identified as a strain of the H2N2 class of influenza, occurred in Hong Kong in April 1957, and then spread throughout China. By June, it had arrived in the United States via naval vessels and spread to coastal military bases and also summer camps.


In late June, 1,688 people, mostly women, from 43 states and nine countries, attended a church conference in Grinnell, Iowa.

An Asian Flu advertisement that appear in the Baltimore Sun on Dec. 27, 1957.

“Returning home, delegates effectively seeded the entire continent. Curiously, no community wide outbreaks followed, probably because summer’s heat and humidity are somewhat inimical to flu,” reported The Seattle Times in a 2009 article on the pandemic. “Whatever the reason, people at the CDC were assured there wouldn’t be an all-out epidemic — at least until the fall.”


Seven boys and girls from Maryland were stricken at Grinnell College while attending the Westminster Fellowship National Assembly.

The Baltimore Sun reported on July 11 that there were a "scattering of cases reported in Maryland that resulted from “Far Eastern ’57,' the name given to the virus causing Oriental flu.'”

Meanwhile, Maryland Health Department officials told The Sun “there is no cause for undue alarm although some viruses tend to become more virulent, or deadly, as they are transmitted from one country to another, this apparently has not been true on the case of the Oriental flu.”

Children’s camps were great incubators of the contagion, and on July 11, Camp Roosevelt, a Boy Scout camp near Chesapeake Beach, closed after 70 campers came down with the flu, which while harsh, was rarely fatal.

By late summer, the flu was on the march and had invaded southern Europe, Central and South America, and Coastal Africa. It especially targeted children, the elderly and pregnant women.

But the CDC was taking no chances and had ordered six manufacturers to prepare a vaccine as soon as possible. By Sept. 11, 1.8 million doses were delivered to the U.S. Department of Defense with the remaining 3.6 million for the civilian population. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had been given his flu shot on Aug. 26.

When schools opened in Baltimore, absences rose but public officials initially were not sure if there was a direct link between the flu and absenteeism.

“We just don’t know yet whether this is the usual winter crop of colds and flu,” Dr. Charlotte Silverman, who was chief of the state health department’s division of epidemiology and communicable-disease control, told The Evening Sun in early October.


“In any case, Baltimore schools do not yet seem to have been hit as hard by respiratory ailments as have those in Washington, where 23% of the pupils were absent yesterday,” reported The Evening Sun on October 10.

By mid October, there were 13,000 reported cases in the state with most cases centered on the lower Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland.

Breaking News Alerts

As it happens

Be informed of breaking news as it happens and notified about other don't-miss content with our free news alerts.

The week of Oct. 25 saw 8,000 new cases reported in seven days, according to The Evening Sun. The hardest hit Baltimore County public school was Lutherville Elementary that reported 50% of its total enrollment was absent because of the flu, while Anne Arundel County public schools said of its 65 schools, 10% of the enrollment was absent.

By the end of the month, the flu had seemingly peaked with The Evening Sun reporting there had been 37 deaths in the city from flu and pneumonia since the first week in September.

“The outbreak of this disease in October and November caused about 300 deaths, 65 attributed directly to influenza and pneumonia and the remainder to diseases of the heart,” Dr. Huntington Williams, Baltimore health commissioner, told The Sun.

Williams told the newspaper the first evidence of the flu made itself known in September.


This evidence became “unmistakable,” he said, in the first week of October, “with high incidence of cases and definite indication of an increase in deaths."

The death toll throughout the U.S. was 40,000 during the summer and fall, with another 20,000 victims in the winter of 1958. Worldwide deaths from the pandemic were estimated to be two million.

Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed research.