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"The Worst Epidemic"


Earlier this month we heard how another wave of influenza struck North Dakota in early 1920. Bismarck’s city health officer banned public dances for 16 days. More than 130 people fell ill in three weeks in Bismarck, which had about 7,000 residents at the time. In February of 1920, for the first time since the pandemic emerged in the fall of 1918, the capital city logged more deaths than births in a calendar month.

One of the most tragic Bismarck-area flu deaths in 1920 was of a Washburn farmer who months earlier had been crushed between two tractors. He survived and recovered from extensive rib injuries. But weeks after he left the hospital, he caught the flu and died.

Fifteen people died in Grand Forks due to the early 1920 flu wave. On this date in 1920, Sunday school and night classes were resuming at the University of North Dakota, which had closed for two weeks due to the epidemic.

Elsewhere in North Dakota, other communities struggled to respond. A shortage of nurses in Munich led young men to offer their services nursing whole families sick with flu. A doctor in Columbus was caring for 160 flu patients. Schools throughout North Dakota closed due to the epidemic in early 1920, from Bowman to Lignite to Monango.

Later in 1920, the secretary of North Dakota’s State Board of Health filed a two-year report that summarized the flu pandemic. He wrote, “During this period we have been visited by the worst epidemic, perhaps, the world has ever known.” It’s unknown how many North Dakotans died from the flu pandemic. One estimate is 5,100 people.

The pandemic hit the state when North Dakota had poor public health administration. There was no full-time state health officer. Instead, there was a three-member State Board of Health led by the attorney general.

Many cities and counties had health officers, but most had little or no money for health work. The state also had fewer physicians and nurses to respond to the pandemic in the fall of 1918, as many were overseas in World War One.  Red Cross volunteers responded.
And weeks before the 1920 flu wave struck, the Legislature cut the entire budget of the State Board of Health. The governor used an emergency fund to patch the board’s budget.

After years of advocates pushing, the 1923 Legislature established North Dakota’s Department of Health, including a full-time state health officer and an advisory council. 

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


State of North Dakota. (1920). Report of the State Board of Health for the Biennial Period Ending June 30, 1920. Bismarck Tribune Printers
State of North Dakota. (1924). Eighteenth biennial report of the state department of health of North Dakota for the biennial period ending June 30, 1924.
McDonough, S.L. (1989). The golden ounce: A century of public health in North Dakota. University Printing Center: Grand Forks, ND
Grand Forks Herald. 1920, January 22. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1920, January 28. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1920, February 16. Page 3
Grand Forks Herald. 1920, February 25. Page 5
Grand Forks Herald. 1920, February 26. Page 3
Courier Democrat. 1920, February 26, Page 5
The Ward County Independent. 1920, February 26. Page 2
The Oakes Times. 1920, February 26. Pages 4, 6
The Bowbells Tribune. 1920, February 27. Page 3
The Bismarck Tribune. 1920, March 13. Page 6
The Bismarck Tribune. 1923, May 24. Page 1

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