Sign in or register
for additional privileges

The White Plague in the City of Angels

Caroline Luce, Author
Mount Sinai Path, page 1 of 4
Previous page on path     Next page on path


You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.

Influenza and the Bikur Cholim Society, 1920-1929

While the city’s public health efforts, in combination with the efforts at Kaspare Cohn Hospital and the City of Hope, had made great strides in combating the local tuberculosis epidemic by the second decade of the twentieth century, a new contagion rocked the city: influenza. The first cases of influenza in Los Angeles were reported at the Naval Reserve Station at the Los Angeles Harbor in September 1918, and within weeks, fifty-five students at Polytechnic High School had contracted the disease. By mid-October, the health department reported that some 300 people per day were contracting the disease, and by the end of the month at the peak of the epidemic, the number of new cases reported rose as high as 800 per day. [42]

The influenza epidemic was one of the first global pandemics of the modern era, killing some 50 to 100 million people across the world.  It evoked some familiar responses from Los Angeles public health officials. The City Health Commissioner, as well as officials from the State Board of Health, declared a state of emergency, closed all local schools and prohibited all public gatherings, banning public access to funeral halls, movie houses, theaters, pool halls, and other public entertainments. The City Council also passed two new ordinances to control the spread of the disease - the first requiring tenants to clean their front steps and sidewalks daily; the second establishing a city-wide “clean up week” to disinfect both private and public spaces. Some members of the Council objected to these interventions, arguing that they interfered with both private businesses (particularly local theaters) and religious rights (several local churches refused to stop holding services, resulting in arrests), and tried to repeal the citywide bans. But their efforts failed, and the bans remained in place until December when the number of reported new cases fell to below 350, leaving only the closure of local schools in place.

The epidemic revealed a need for formalizing Jewish communal support for the chronically and terminally ill. While visiting the homes of the sick to provide comfort and assistance, in keeping with the traditional mitzvah of bikur cholim (literally “visiting the sick” in Hebrew), a group of Jewish Angelenos realized that there were many impoverished city residents suffering from terminal illnesses in need of love, kindness, and support. In 1920, under the leadership of Charles Groman, they incorporated as the Bikur Cholim Society (Society for Visiting the Sick) and acquired a small, two-room home where they could provide the city’s “incurables” twenty-four hour care, naming it Bikur Cholim Hospital. 

After raising the necessary funds, Groman and the leaders of the Bikur Cholim Society purchased a larger home for their hospital, one with nine rooms located at 831 Bonnie Beach Place in Boyle Heights, and renamed their facility the Mount Sinai Home for Incurables. The name was designed to define their focus: rather than treat every illness or malady, Mount Sinai offered relief to those suffering only from long-term and chronic illnesses. 

By the end of the 1920s, the Mount Sinai Home expanded their facility into a fifty-bed facility. Veteran activist Peter Kahn assumed the presidency of the institution and expanded its fundraising efforts in the local community. Kahn and his allies on the board of directors also voted to change the institution’s name yet again, arguing that since “medical science” had improved, all patients had a possibility of relief and cure and should not be regarded as “incurable.” They renamed the facility the Mount Sinai Home for Chronic Invalids. [43] 

Comment on this page

Discussion of "Influenza and the Bikur Cholim Society, 1920-1929"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...

Previous page on path Mount Sinai Path, page 1 of 4 Next page on path