History Nebraska Blog

Omaha Bankers Asked: Does Money Spread the Flu?

Interior of a bank by photographer John Nelson

Nebraska’s last great epidemic was the 1918 Flu epidemic, but the earlier flu pandemic of 1889-90 also affected the state. The first outbreak was reported in Russia and spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. By December 21, 1889, the Omaha Bee reported that “slight symptoms of the contagion are making their appearance in this city. It is claimed that the germs of the disease are transported in money, which accounts for its development in banks before spreading through a community.”

A Bee reporter interviewed local bank employees to learn if they had developed symptoms of the flu and if so, how they were coping. A teller at the Omaha National Bank said that he had recently suffered from “a peculiar feeling in the nose and head” but managed to ignore it. William Wallace of the same bank rejected the idea of disease being spread by money, “principally because in thirty years experience as a banker he had not had his attention called to a case where anyone had become possessed of a contagious illness in that manner.”

William Hamilton, teller at the Merchants National Bank, thought otherwise. “‘I have been compelled,’ said he, ‘to handle money that was so filthy and dirty that it almost made me sick.’ B. B. Wood is complaining now of an itching in the nostrils that greatly annoys him. Luther Drake was a victim a few days ago, but two or three generous applications of quinine and Scotch whisky brought him out all right.”

Although as the Bee noted, opinion varied in 1889, it does appear that contamination of such items as banknotes may have contributed to the spread of influenza, especially in a pandemic situation such as prevailed in 1889-90. About one million people died worldwide; deaths peaked in the United States during the week of January 12, 1890. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications  

Postal worker wearing a mask during the 1918 flu epidemic.

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