MassMutual and the Spanish flu pandemic

Allen Wastler

By Allen Wastler
Allen Wastler is a former financial journalist with over 30-years of experience, including time at CNBC, CNN, and Knight-Ridder Newspapers.
Posted on Mar 25, 2020

One of history’s most notable pandemics — the Spanish flu epidemic — struck the world in 1918. Many companies and institutions pitched in to handle the crisis and MassMutual was no exception.

There are debates, scientific and historical, about the true extent and death toll of the illness. But most estimates generally indicate the global pandemic infected roughly 500 million people, resulting in up to 50 million directly attributable deaths. Troop movements resulting from the last year of World War I are believed to have contributed to the spread of the disease. More than  600,000 are believed to have died in the United States alone.

Individual communities across the country were devastated by the epidemic. Springfield, Massachusetts, and surrounding areas were included. MassMutual at the time was headquartered in the city center, before moving to a larger campus in 1927.

In response to the 1918 crisis, MassMutual, working with the city government and state militia, helped set up a tent city in Springfield’s Forest Park to house and treat victims of the Spanish flu. Estimates put the number of cases in the city at about 700.

tent city 1918Tent city in the Forest Park section of Springfield, Massachusetts. Photo is courtesy of MassLive / The Republican.

Of course, MassMutual had to weather financial implications from the flu pandemic, as well. The company paid about 50 percent more in death benefits than it had in previous years. In fact, the company considered the Spanish flu epidemic of greater consequence than claims from WWI.

“Owing in large part to this (flu) cause rather than to the war, our mortality experience for the year was less favorable than for many years,” the MassMutual president at the time, William W. McClench, wrote in the company’s annual report. “But this experience was undoubtedly common to all the life insurance companies of the country.”

And keeping commitments in the face of the pandemic also became a point of pride.

“The home is the unit of the nation,” wrote Alma Gibson Robb, a MassMutual agent, in an insurance industry newspaper on April 26, 1919. “Today we tell, with justifiable pride, of the life insurance companies paying death claims of $100 million in 90 days during the Influenza Epidemic. Think of the homes that received those hundred million dollars! Think of the women and children benefited thereby! What would it mean to these dependents — to the State — to the present citizens, in the way of taxation and self-denial, if this insurance had not been placed in the past?”

And the same commitments were kept during other severe influenza outbreaks in 1957, 1968, and 2009. (Related: Insurance and pandemic coverage)

Today, in the face of yet another pandemic, MassMutual is taking action again. It has donated $1 million to the establishment of the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley with the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. And it is taking measures to protect its operations while helping its customers, plan sponsors, and financial professionals navigate uncertainty.

MassMutual takes pride in the fact that its financial strength and stability will continue to help it keep its commitments — the same as it did in 1918 and all the epidemics after.

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Jonathan Berthiaume contributed to this article.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, its employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.