You can watch the entire History Day 2022 program on Youtube:

History Day 2022

Travis County History Day is an annual event that celebrates the rich history of Travis County.  For the 15th annual History Day event, we explore the topic of pandemics, past and present. We reflect on the efforts we have made to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, and look back at the 1918 flu pandemic.

Oral History Video Project

In 2022, the Travis County Archives launched an oral history video project to capture the voices of those involved in the efforts to combat the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.  With efforts ranging from public health orders to vaccine clinics, the officials and employees of Travis County made great strides in protecting the county’s citizens.  Take a listen to the compilation of the oral histories collected thus far. The links to each interview on our digital collections site are below.


The 1918 Flu Pandemic

During the fall of 1918 and the winter of 1919, an epidemic of influenza affected much of the civilized world. An estimated twenty-five million Americans experienced what became known as the Spanish flu; an estimated 550,000 died from the disease. More U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war. In just one year, the average life expectancy in America plummeted by a dozen years.

When the 1918 flu hit, doctors and scientists were unsure what caused it or how to treat it. There were no effective vaccines or antivirals, and World War I had left parts of America with a shortage of physicians and other health workers. Of the available medical personnel in the U.S., many came down with the flu themselves.

Prior to 1914, few people traversed long distances, limiting the spread of infectious diseases from one place to another. The war saw the mobilization and movement of large numbers of troops and related personnel, both within and between continents; it also uprooted the lives of millions of non-combatants, especially in Europe. People from places far apart became more directly connected – and more liable to be exposed to any new form of the flu.

Army recruits in World War I were brought together to live in close proximity in army camps, barracks, ships and trench dugouts.  Soldiers with mild strains of the flu virus were left in the trenches, and those with severe illness were sent home. As they made the trip back home, they infected those who came in contact with them, due to the highly contagious nature of the disease.

In Austin, the disease spread quickly. Early reports assured the public that though the disease was highly contagious, there was no just cause for alarm. However, this quickly proved to be false. On September 27, 1918, there was one reported case of influenza at Camp Mabry. On October 4, 900 cases of influenza were reported there.

As the number of cases grew, more medical facilities became involved.  Hospitals became so overloaded with flu patients that schools, private homes and other buildings were be converted into makeshift hospitals, some of which were staffed by medical students. At Seton Infirmary on West 26th Street, the Army set up large tents on the grounds and converted a three-story fraternity house into a temporary shelter for patients.

Edna Shultz, matron of the City Hospital (later known as Brackenridge Hospital), reported, “The city officials came to me and said, ‘Put your white dress on and take charge.’ …The city officials told me to get everybody out of the hospital who wasn’t seriously ill and prepare for the worst. Then they brought in Army cots and I was ready.”

Quarantine was placed on Camp Mabry. The University of Texas first suspended classes for three days, but then announced that school would be dismissed until further notice. On October 8, 1918, the City Council adopted an ordinance that closed “the state university, all public and private schools and colleges of the City of Austin, all churches and lodges and all other places of assemblage where people gather for religious, social, fraternal, political, business, or other purposes for the period of thirty days from the date of the enactment of this ordinance.” On October 18, it was announced that Travis County schools would remain closed indefinitely.

By the end of October, area health officials were reporting that the influenza epidemic was under control in portions of Texas and that the situation was gradually improving. On November 2, the Austin City Council repealed the ordinance banning all public gatherings, and schools were reopened soon after. Camp Mabry prepared to lift its quarantine, and temporary hospitals that had been opened throughout the city began to be closed.

While no official record was kept, newspaper estimates put the Austin and Travis County mortality rate at approximately 277, with thousands infected.

Worldwide, the flu pandemic came to an end by the summer of 1919, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity. The exact numbers are impossible to know due to a lack of medical record-keeping in many places. However, some estimate that the flu infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population.

Pandemics: Parallels in History

Red Cross workers making anti-influenza masks for soldiers in camp. Boston, Massachusetts, 1919, National Archives.

Like COVID-19, the 1918 influenza pandemic hit hard and fast, going from a handful of reported cases in a few cities to a nationwide outbreak within a few weeks. Many communities issued several rounds of various closure orders – corresponding to the ebbs and flows of their epidemics – in an attempt to keep the disease in check.

These social-distancing orders worked to reduce cases and deaths. Just as today, however, they often proved difficult to maintain. By the late autumn, just weeks after the social-distancing orders went into effect, the pandemic seemed to be coming to an end as the number of new infections declined.

People clamored to return to their normal lives. Businesses pressed officials to be allowed to reopen. Believing the pandemic was over, state and local authorities began rescinding public health edicts. The nation turned its efforts to addressing the devastation influenza had wrought.

For the friends, families and co-workers of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who had died, post-pandemic life was filled with sadness and grief. Many of those still recovering from their bouts with the malady required support and care as they recuperated.

At a time when there was no federal or state safety net, charitable organizations sprang into action to provide resources for families who had lost their breadwinners, or to take in the countless children left orphaned by the disease.

For the vast majority of Americans, though, life after the pandemic seemed to be a headlong rush to normalcy. Starved for weeks of their nights on the town, sporting events, religious services, classroom interactions and family gatherings, many were eager to return to their old lives.

Taking their cues from officials who had – somewhat prematurely – declared an end to the pandemic, Americans overwhelmingly hurried to return to their pre-pandemic routines. They packed into movie theaters and dance halls, crowded in stores and shops, and gathered with friends and family.

Officials had warned the nation that cases and deaths likely would continue for months to come. The burden of public health, however, now rested not on policy but rather on individual responsibility.

Predictably, the pandemic wore on, stretching into a third deadly wave that lasted through the spring of 1919, with a fourth wave hitting in the winter of 1920. Some officials blamed the resurgence on careless Americans. Others downplayed the new cases or turned their attention to more routine public health matters, including other diseases, restaurant inspections and sanitation.

Despite the persistence of the pandemic, influenza quickly became old news. Once a regular feature of front pages, reportage rapidly dwindled to small, sporadic clippings buried in the backs of the nation’s newspapers. The nation carried on, inured to the toll the pandemic had taken and the deaths yet to come. People were largely unwilling to return to socially and economically disruptive public health measures.

No matter the era, aspects of daily life go on even during a pandemic.

Excerpt from article by J. Alexander Navarro, republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


1918 Flu Pandemic: Keeping the Community Safe

People seek help in San Francisco, California, 1918. Photograph: Hamilton Henry Dobbin/California State Library/EPA

In 1918, there were no vaccines to help prevent flu infection. Available tools to control the spread of flu were largely limited to interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limits on public gatherings, which were used in many cities, including Austin. City residents were advised to avoid crowds and instructed to pay particular attention to personal hygiene. Many physicians and nurses were instructed to wear gauze masks when with flu patients.

Those public health measures were called “non-pharmaceutical interventions” during the 1918 influenza pandemic, estimated to have killed about 675,000 people in the U.S. and about 50 million around the world.  Were such measures successful? Social distancing did not cure the disease and did not prevent it. Mortality was still appalling, but it would have been worse if not for public health measures.

In response, states and cities across the country told people to do what we now know as social distancing. Schools, restaurants, and businesses were closed. Public gatherings were banned. People were told to isolate and quarantine. In some places, this lasted for months.

It worked. Things didn’t go perfectly — far from it, as some cities fared much worse than others, and people didn’t always obey what experts and officials were telling them. But studies show that the social distancing efforts helped slow the spread of the 1918 flu and reduce the mortality rate overall.


The COVID-19 Pandemic: Slowing the Spread

Howdy mural by @noted.tx, 2020. [AR-2020-014-di443], Austin History Center, Austin Public Library


The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Local Government and a Community Respond

COTA Mass Vaccination Site, 2021. Photo by J.Genevieve. Public Information Office, COVID-19 Collection, Travis County Archives

Community and local government came together like never before in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. From county-sponsored community support programs such as business grants, rent assistance, and evictions protections, to community members volunteering at vaccination clinics, the people of Travis County worked together to support each other through difficult times. Travis County responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in a variety of innovative ways, including conducting the first virtual criminal jury trial in the country, hosting vaccine distribution events throughout the county, and organizing one of the largest drive-thru vaccine clinics in the country.

The Resilience of Community

Together we can get through this 6 feet apart, 2020. [jwj040620Coronavirus0728], Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Photos from the Pandemic

Selected images from the COVID-19 collections of the Travis County Archives and the Austin History Center.



Street Scenes


Swearing Ins

Vaccines and Health Care Workers