The influenza epidemic of 1918 and how NYL responded

New York Life | March 19, 2020


Top photo: Recruits in training camps were instructed to gargle in what proved a futile effort to ward off the flu.

It is comforting to know that neither war nor influenza can make any material difference to you as a member of this Company, because as against such startling incidents, this company long since made abundant provision.”

-New York Life President Darwin Kingsley in the company’s 1918 Annual Report

The worst flu pandemic in modern history—infecting a third of the world’s population at the time—happened a century ago, and New York Life was there to help.

In the summer of 1918, cases were first reported in China, Germany, and Spain, where its prevalence gave it the name “Spanish Influenza.” To contain the spread of infection, medical authorities urged people to wear masks and not to congregate in public places and other close quarters. But by October of that year, the Spanish flu was widespread across the globe, and by the time it subsided in 1919 it had claimed the lives of more than 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans.

New York Life paid out $10 million—$150 million in today’s dollars—in Spanish flu-related claims, noted then Chief Actuary Arthur Hunter in a report the following year. “There is no reliable record of an epidemic similar in its virulence and in its effect on the young and healthy persons of both sexes,” Hunter wrote.

Thanks to the long-term strategy that company leaders had been following since New York Life was established in 1845—and still follow today—the company was able to protect policy owners. 

The $10 million disbursed by New York Life not only provided crucial assistance to survivors but helped cushion the national economic blow.

New York Life’s employees, already operating shorthanded due to the war—World War I began in 1914 and wouldn’t end until November of 1918—rose to the occasion and worked late into the night to make sure that flu-related claims were processed as quickly as possible.

The influenza pandemic of 1918-’19 tragically demonstrated the security that life insurance could provide in times of need, particularly to populations who didn’t normally consider themselves at risk. (The Spanish flu disproportionately affected the young.) It also highlighted New York Life’s commitment to and capacity for providing that security.

The company absorbed the financial blow of a sudden catastrophe in stride, honoring its commitments to policy owners without hesitation or disruption.  The letter below, received in 1991 from the daughter of a policy owner, speaks to the lasting impacts of New York Life’s steady hand. We don’t know if her father died from influenza; however, the fact that New York Life was able to provide continuous security to all policy owners during a pandemic, meant that she and her family could have a better life. 

letter to New York Life

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Media contact

Kevin Maher
New York Life Insurance Company
(212) 576-7937