The Deadly Pandemic of 1918
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide — about one-third of the planet’s population — and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims. The 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia before swiftly spreading around the world. At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines to treat this killer flu strain. Citizens were ordered to wear masks, schools, theaters and businesses were shuttered and bodies piled up in makeshift morgues before the virus ended its deadly global march
What Is the Flu?
Influenza, or flu, is a virus that attacks the respiratory system. The flu virus is highly contagious: When an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, respiratory droplets are generated and transmitted into the air, and can then can be inhaled by anyone nearby. Additionally, a person who touches something with the virus on it and then touches his or her mouth, eyes or nose can become infected.
Flu outbreaks happen every year and vary in severity, depending in part on what type of virus is spreading. (Flu viruses can rapidly mutate.)
What Caused the Spanish Flu?
It’s unknown exactly where the particular strain of influenza that caused the pandemic came from; however, the 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, America and areas of Asia before spreading to almost every other part of the planet within a matter of months.
Despite the fact that the 1918 flu wasn’t isolated to one place, it became known around the world as the Spanish flu, as Spain was hit hard by the disease and was not subject to the wartime news blackouts that affected other European countries. (Even Spain's king, Alfonso XIII, reportedly contracted the flu.)
It was a dreadful business.
Isaac Starr, 3rd year medical student
University of Pennsylvania, 1918
When Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist, created his famous painting The Scream (in 1893), he had no idea that within twenty-five years half the world’s population would suddenly fall ill. His Death in the Sickroom (1895) and The Dead Mother (1899-1900) were eerily prophetic of terrible times to come. The prolific artist, whose works are still studied and admired, was among the sick during the pandemic years of 1918-19. The malady was “Spanish Flu” - the deadliest disease in recorded history.
Munch’s Self-Portrait Spanish Influenza (1919) depicts an unwell man, but his Self-Portrait After Spanish Influenza shows the ravages of illness. At least he survived. More than 50 million others did not.
One unusual aspect of the 1918 flu was that it struck down many previously healthy, young people — a group normally resistant to this type of infectious illness — including a number of World War I servicemen. In fact, more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war. Forty percent of the U.S. Navy was hit with the flu, while 36 percent of the Army became ill, and troops moving around the world in crowded ships and trains helped to spread the killer virus.
Although the death toll attributed to the Spanish flu is often estimated at 20 million to 50 million victims worldwide, other estimates run as high as 100 million victims — around 3 percent of the world’s population. The exact numbers are impossible to know due to a lack of medical record-keeping in many places.
When the 1918 flu hit, doctors and scientists were unsure what caused it or how to treat it. Unlike today, there were no effective vaccines or antivirals, drugs that treat the flu. (The first licensed flu vaccine appeared in America in the 1940s. By the following decade, vaccine manufacturers could routinely produce vaccines that would help control and prevent future pandemics.) Complicating matters was the fact that World War I had left parts of America with a shortage of physicians and other health workers. And of the available medical personnel in the U.S., many came down with the flu themselves.
When American troops went to Europe, they unwittingly carried with them a virus that would end up killing more people than the weapons of war. Photographs from the national archives depict both the fighting men and their surroundings. Air evacuation, in 1918, was primitive by today’s standards. But then, as now, planes could mean the difference between life and death. Soldiers and French civilians had to wear gas masks to protect themselves from mustard gas). As U.S. troops crowded into confined spaces such as hospitals, trenches and blocked roads (like the ruins of Esnes behind American lines in the Argonne), they spread the flu virus. Americans were sick with the flu in Aix-Les-Bains, France and Hollerich, Luxembourg.
Triumphant U.S. soldiers marched through Perth, Scotland in 1918 while others, wounded at the front, were brought back to Souilly, France on September 28, 1918. The following month, civilians back in the States would endure a horrifying outbreak of the flu epidemic as returning soldiers brought the now-mutated virus home. Much worse than its “first wave” (in the spring of 1918), the Spanish Flu had turned deadly.
Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly
The first strain of the Spanish flu wasn’t particularly deadly. Then it came back in the fall with a vengeance.
THE SECOND WAVE
The overcrowded trenches and encampments of the First World War became the perfect hosts for the disease. As troops moved, so the infection traveled with them. The wave that had first appeared in Kansas abated after a few weeks, but this was only a temporary reprieve. By September 1918 the epidemic was ready to enter its most lethal phase. It has been calculated that the 13 weeks between September and December 1918 constituted the most intense period, taking the greatest number of lives. Once again, it was the crowded military encampments where the second wave initially gained a hold. In September an outbreak of 6,674 cases was reported at Camp Devens, a military base in Massachusetts.
As the crisis reached its zenith, the medical services began to be overwhelmed. Morticians and gravediggers struggled, and conducting individual funerals became impossible. Many of the dead ended up in mass graves. The end of 1918 brought a hiatus in the spread of the illness and January 1919 saw the beginning of the third and final phase. By then the disease was a much diminished force. The ferocity of the autumn and winter of the previous year was not repeated and mortality rates fell.
Although the final wave was much less lethal than its predecessors, it was still able to wreak considerable damage. Australia, which had quickly enacted quarantine restrictions, managed to escape the worst of the flu until the beginning of 1919, when the disease finally arrived and took the lives of several thousand Australians. The general trend of mortality, however, was downward. There were cases of deaths from influenza — possibly a different strain — as late as 1920, but by the summer of 1919 health care policies and the natural genetic mutation of the virus brought the epidemic to a close. Even so, its effects, for those left bereaved or suffering long-term health complications, were to last decades.
The pandemic left almost no part of the world untouched. In Great Britain 228,000 people died. The United States lost as many as 675,000 people, Japan some 400,000. The south Pacific island of Western Samoa (modern-day Samoa) lost one-fifth of its population. Researchers estimate that in India alone, fatalities totaled between 12 and 17 million. Exact data in the number of deaths is elusive, but global mortality figures are estimated to have been between 10 and 20 percent of those who were infected.
How the Spanish Flu Got Its Name
Interestingly, it was during this time that the Spanish flu earned its misnomer. Spain was neutral during World War I and unlike its European neighbors, it didn’t impose wartime censorship on its press. In France, England and the United States, newspapers weren’t allowed to report on anything that could harm the war effort, including news that a crippling virus was sweeping through troops. Since Spanish journalists were some of the only ones reporting on a widespread flu outbreak in the spring of 1918, the pandemic became known as the “Spanish flu”.
Famous victims of the Spanish flu
Johnny Aitken, American auto racer, lead first lap of the first Indianapolis 500 (October 15, 1918)
Turki I bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, eldest son of Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia (1919)
Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves, Brazilian re-elected president, died before taking office (January 16, 1919)
Robert Anderson, Scotland Yard official (November 15, 1918)
Guillaume Apollinaire, French poet (November 9, 1918)
Felix Arndt, American pianist (October 16, 1918)
Louis Botha, first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa (August 27, 1919)
Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, Portuguese painter, (October 25, 1918)
Larry Chappell, American baseball player, (November 8, 1918)
Rose Cleveland, First Lady of the United States of America, sister of President Grover Cleveland (November 22, 1918)
Gaby Deslys, French actress and dancer (February 11, 1920)
Anton Dilger, medical doctor, mastermind of Germany's World War I secret bioterror sabotage
John Francis Dodge (January 14, 1920), American automobile manufacturing pioneer
Horace Elgin Dodge (December 10, 1920), American automobile manufacturing pioneer
Angus Douglas, Scottish international footballer, (December 14, 1918)
Harold Gilman, British painter (February 12, 1919)
Henry G. Ginaca, American engineer, inventor of the Ginaca machine (October 19, 1918)
Myrtle Gonzalez, American film actress (October 22, 1918)
Edward Kidder Graham, President of the University of North Carolina (October 26, 1918)
Charles Tomlinson Griffes, American composer (April 8, 1920)
Eremia Grigorescu, Romanian General during World War I (July 21, 1919)
Wilhelm Gross, Austrian mathematician (October 22, 1918)
Sophie Halberstadt-Freud, daughter of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1920)
Joe Hall, Montreal Canadiens ice hockey defenceman, member of the Hockey Hall of Fame (April 6, 1919)
Shelley Hull, American stage actor, (January 14, 1919)
Margit Kaffka, Hungarian writer and poet, (December 1, 1918)
Joseph Kaufman, American actor and film director, (February 1, 1918)
Vera Kholodnaya, Russian actress (February 16, 1919)
Gustav Klimt, Austrian painter, (February 6, 1918)
Bohumil Kubišta, Czech painter, (November 27, 1918)
Gilda Langer, German actress, (January 31, 1920)
Hans E. Lau, Danish astronomer, (October 16, 1918)
Julian L'Estrange, English stage and screen actor (October 22, 1918)
Ruby Lindsay, Australian illustrator and painter, (March 12, 1919)
Harold Lockwood, American silent film star, (October 19, 1918)
Rosalia Lombardo, Italian daughter of General Lombardo (December 6, 1920)
Dan McMichael, manager of Scottish association football club Hibernian (1919)
Leon Morane, French aircraft company founder and pre-World War I aviator (October 20, 1918)
William Osler, Canadian physician, co founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital, (December 29, 1919)
Ōyama Sutematsu, first Japanese woman to receive a college degree (February, 1919)
Sir Hubert Parry, British composer, (October 7, 1918)
Henry Ragas, American pianist of the Original Dixieland Jass Band, (February 18, 1919)
Stephen Sydney Reynolds, English writer, (February 14, 1919)
William Leefe Robinson, British Victoria Cross recipient, (December 31, 1918)
Edmond Rostand, French dramatist, best known for his play Cyrano de Bergerac, (December 2, 1918)
Morton Schamberg, American modernist artist in 1918.
Egon Schiele, Austrian painter (October 31, 1918, Vienna)
Reggie Schwarz, South African cricketer and rugby player (November 18, 1918)
Hamby Shore, Canadian ice hockey player (October 13, 1918)
Robert W. Speer, mayor of Denver (May 14, 1918)
Walter Stradling, English born cinematographer (July 1918)
Anaseini Takipō, Queen Dowager of Tonga (November 26, 1918)
Frederick Trump, grandfather of the President of the United States Donald Trump (May 27, 1918)
Yakov Sverdlov, Bolshevik party leader and official of the Russian Republic established by the February 1917 Revolution (March 16, 1919)
Mark Sykes, British politician and diplomat, body exhumed 2008 for scientific research (February 16, 1919)
Dark Cloud (actor), aka Elijah Tahamont, American Indian actor, in Los Angeles (1918).
Prince Umberto, Count of Salemi, member of the Italian royal family, (October 19, 1918)
Prince Erik, Duke of Västmanland (Erik Gustav Ludvig Albert Bernadotte), Prince of Sweden (September 20, 1918)
King Watzke, American violinist and bandleader, (1920)
Max Weber, German political economist and sociologist (June 14, 1920)
Bill Yawkey, Major League Baseball executive and owner of the Detroit Tigers, in Augusta, Georgia, US (March 5, 1919)
As the flu began to take its toll, U.S. cities took measures to reduce its spread. Chicago theaters displayed posters like this one to slow the flu’s spread; the city imposed
quarantine controls on the Great Lakes Naval Station and fined people who sneezed without covering their mouths. After October 1918, fatalities soared and authorities across the
nation reluctantly started to close theaters and other public spaces.
Alexandrine of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1879–1952), Queen of Denmark
Alfonso XIII of Spain (1886–1941), King of Spain
Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) German-Jewish philosopher and Marxist literary critic
Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), American novelist and screenwriter
Walt Disney (1901–1966), cartoonist
Margaret Dumont (1882–1965), American stage and motion picture actress
Peter Fraser (1884–1950), New Zealand prime minister
Amelita Galli-Curci (1882–1963), Italian operatic soprano
Greta Garbo (1905–1990), Swedish/American motion picture actress
Robert Graves (1895–1985), English poet, translator and novelist.
Lillian Gish (1893–1993), American early motion picture actress
Haile Selassie I (1892–1975), Emperor of Ethiopia
Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), economist and Nobel laureate
Joseph Joffre (1852–1931), French World War I general, victor of the Marne
Jim Jordan (1896–1988), American actor best known as Fibber McGee
David Lloyd George (1863–1945), British prime minister
Franz Kafka (1883–1924), German-speaking Jewish author
Prince Maximilian of Baden (1867–1929), Chancellor of Germany during the armistice
William Keepers Maxwell, Jr. (August 16, 1908 – July 31, 2000), American novelist and editor
Edvard Munch, (1863–1944) Norwegian painter
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), American modernist painter
John J. Pershing (1860–1948), American general
Mary Pickford (1892–1979), American film actress
Katherine Anne Porter (1890–1980), Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), American president
Leó Szilárd (1898–1964), nuclear physicist, discoverer of the nuclear chain reaction
Robert Walser (1878–1956), Swiss author
Wilhelm II, German Emperor (1859–1941)
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), American president
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