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Rotary History

Rotary’s response to the 1918 flu pandemic

An estimated 500 million people worldwide became infected. Many cities closed theaters and cinemas, and placed restrictions on public gatherings. Rotary clubs adjusted their activities while also helping the sick.

This is how Rotary responded to the influenza pandemic that began in 1918 and came in three waves, lasting more than a year.

In the United States, the illness was first identified in military personnel in the spring of 1918. The second, deadliest wave peaked between September and November of that year — the final stages of World War I.

Hospitals in some areas were so overloaded with flu patients that schools, private homes, and other buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals. In Chicago, where Rotary World Headquarters was then located, the number of new cases reached 1,200 a day at one point.

Several district governors reported at the June 1919 convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, that war work and then the flu greatly interfered with club activities and their club visits — but not with the spirit of Rotary service.

Illness and upheaval “prevailed all over the world,” Charles H. Brown, then governor for District 10 (Ohio), told the convention. “But throughout Ohio you will find the Rotary clubs, in every city where a Rotary club exists, in the foremost ranks of civic and social work, doing their full share toward serving our government and humanity.”

John Napier Dyer, then governor for District 11 (Indiana), also saw Rotarians stepping forward to help during a time of need. Although traditional Rotary activities practically ceased in his district for several months, he said “many Rotarians gave themselves to the combating of the disease as directors of hospitals, visitors to the sick, or by liberal assistance to the stricken ones.”

Just like during the COVID-19 pandemic, clubs were inspired to adapt and act. They adjusted how they met, following local guidelines of the time, and took action to help give local governments and health providers necessary services and support. Much of this activity occurred in the United States, since Rotary’s international presence at the time was limited. Our response to the coronavirus is global.

  • In 1918, Rotarians in Sacramento and Berkeley, California, USA, held their meetings outdoors to comply with a local restriction on enclosed meetings. In 2020, clubs have adapted by holding their meetings online to stay connected.
  • In 1918, the Rotary Club of Kankakee, Illinois, USA, helped raise funds to buy a car for a Red Cross social worker to use in her trips around the country during the 1918 pandemic. In 2020, Rotary Clubs in District 3700 (Korea) donated $155,000 to the Red Cross. Then and now, our capacity to make a difference is larger when we work with others to create change.
  • In 1918, more than two dozen Rotarians in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA, worked with members of the Boy Scouts organization to quickly and effectively distribute flyers with guidance on how to prevent the spread of influenza. In 2020, the Rotary E-Club of Fenice del Tronto, based out of Italy, invited the public to its online meeting with a virologist who spoke about the coronavirus, how it spreads, and how to keep safe. In Nigeria, Rotary members in Akwa Ibom state conducted a campaign to raise awareness about the threat of coronavirus.
  • In 1918, Rotarians in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA, secured beds for emergency hospitals, volunteered as ambulance drivers, and assisted with a health survey of the city. The Rotary Club of Waterbury, Connecticut, USA, took similar steps, making a canvass of local flu cases and helping create a hospital. In 2020, Rotarians in Makati, Philippines, funded the construction of several emergency quarantine facilities, including a recovery center for COVID-19 patients from the Pasig City Children’s Hospital who no longer need intensive care. These recovery facilities help make space in hospitals for people who require more monitoring.
  • In 1919, The Rotarian magazine reported that a “Rotary flu squad” in Great Falls, Montana, USA, “fought the ravages of the epidemic, not by hiring people to do the work for them, but by actually doing with their own hands whatever work needed to be done.” In 2020, the same community service spirit is being shown by the Rotary Club of Metro Bethesda, Maryland, USA, whose members contact neighbors who are isolating alone at home to ask how they are and if they need anything.

The Rotary Club of Berkeley, California, USA, meets in John Hinkel Park during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Photo by Edwin J. McCullagh, 1931-32 club president. Courtesy of the Rotary Club of Berkeley.