1918’s Spanish flu: A dark history of the deadly influenza pandemic 100 years ago

Flu tips from 1918 - To prevent influenza

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Along with some news reports from 1918, below are two news retrospectives from the 1960s & 1970s. They both take a look back at the devastating effect of the global Spanish flu outbreak that started during the latter part of World War I.

Of course, in the 40-50 years since these articles were published, additional information has come to light. For one, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now puts the number of dead from this particular outbreak of the H1N1 virus at around 50,000,000 worldwide — far higher than previous estimates.

As they put it, “More people died during the 1918 pandemic than the total number of military and civilian deaths that resulted from World War I.”

From the CDC in 2020: It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide, with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

Mortality was high in people younger than 5 years old, 20-40 years old, and 65 years and older. The high mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20-40 year age group, was a unique feature of this pandemic.

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Independent Record (Helena, Montana) September 19, 1976

St. Louis — A screaming wind lashed the Kansas prairie, driving black storm clouds across the afternoon sun, and the 26,000 cavalry, infantry, artillerymen, cooks, bakers and signalmen of Fort Riley, Kansas, retreated to barracks and braced for a dust storm.

Gale force winds battered the creaky barracks for three hours March 9, 1918, before the storm died. The sun and the sergeants were out in the same minute, the sun baking the hard Kansas earth and the sergeants yelling, “Clean it up.”

The dust storm was just one more meteorological indignity for the thousands of men shoehorned into Fort Riley. America’s entry into World War I caught the tiny peacetime Armed Forces unprepared and military camps across the nation were overcrowded, lacking heat, hot water and even latrines.

Emergency Hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas

The weather extremes, dust and crowding made Fort Riley a medical officer’s nightmare and the post had been hit by spotty outbreaks of grippe, mumps, measles, pneumonia and spinal meningitis.

“It’s a dismal place,” said Private John Lewis Barclay of Holden, Missouri. “It got so as soon as they hauled down one quarantine flag, they ran up another one in its place.”

It was two days after the dust storm that cook Albert Gitchell checked into the Fort Riley hospital with a fever, sore throat, headache and muscular pains.

There was barely time for the corpsman to record Gitchell’s 104-degree temperature before Cpl. Lee W. Drake and Sgt. Adolph Hurby checked into the hospital with identical symptoms.

There were 107 cases by noon, 522 by the end of the week and Chief Surgeon Col. Edward R. Schreiner reported an influenza outbreak to Washington, D.C., after noting with monotonous regularity on chart after chart:

“Fever 104. Low pulse, drowsiness and photophobia. Conjunctiva reddened and mucous membranes of nose, throat and bronchi, evidence of inflammation.”

Influenza headlines from the San Francisco Examiner - October 18 1918
Influenza headlines from the San Francisco Examiner – October 18, 1918

Within days, epidemic influenza was reported at Camp Kearney, Calif.; Camp Johnston, Fla.; Camp Lee, Va.; Camp McClellan, Ala.; Camp Sevier, S.C.; and Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. It was the first wave of what would become a worldwide pandemic.

The March epidemic was limited almost entirely to military camps and burned itself out in five weeks, hitting 1,127 soldiers at Fort Riley and leaving 46 dead.

Training went on, and in May 1918, the 89th and 92nd divisions left Fort Riley and sailed to join the American Expeditionary Force in France.

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Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic. December 1918

Influenza epidemics in history

Influenza has been blamed by medical historians for some of the great Biblical plagues, and epidemics were documented as early as the 15th-Century outbreak of “sweating sickness” that killed thousands of Englishmen and left the Royal Navy too sick to leave port.

Sneezes and coughs spread the influenza virus, and the disease travels from man to man, town to town, nation to nation, continent to continent.

In 1647, a flu epidemic spread from Valencia, Spain, to America, giving the disease a name that would be revived in 1918 — Spanish Influenza.

As Russian Influenza, Chinese Distemper and a dozen other aliases, influenza epidemics have periodically ravaged the world.

“Influenza does not, like the plague, desert for ages a country which it has once afflicted, nor is it accustomed… in any marked manner to limit its attacks to particular nations or races,” wrote Dr. Theophilus Thompson of London in 1852. “There is a grandeur in its constancy and immutability superior to the influence of national habits.”

In 1933, when the National Institute of Medical Research at Hampton, England, isolated and identified the killer influenza as a virus, it was learned that change — continued change, not constancy — made the Spanish flu a worldwide scourge.

The protective antibodies mankind developed against influenza would become useless as change, mutation, hybridization created a new virus strain, and the world would be hit by another epidemic.

In 1918, the children had a simpler explanation.

“I had a little bird,
“And its name was Enza.
“I opened up the window,
“And in-flew-Enza.”

Open air camp for influenza cure - Oct 1918

Their Kansas ordeal of ice and sun and fever ended, the 89th and 92nd divisions unloaded at the French ports of Brest and St. Nazaire carrying their Springfield rifles, pie plate helmets, and Influenza A virus by the billions.

The French Poilus and British Tommies were soon complaining of aches, chills and coughs, and the Spanish Lady began her deadly hopscotch journey around the world.

Peace declared: American newspaper headlines from the very end of WWI in 1919

The fluffy, submicroscopic virus was no longer limited to the horse-and-cart pace of the caravan routes, it could now hitch rides on troopships, submarines or a Sopwith Camel.

In May 1918, the Royal Navy reported 10,313 cases of “Flanders Grippe,” and King George V himself came down with the sniffles. By June, there were “Blitz Kattarh” epidemics in Munich, Jena, Bonn and Cologne and Kaiser Wilhelm joined his cousin George as a royal sufferer.

Emergency hospital at Brookline, Massachusetts to care for influenza cases

In July, “Chungking Fever” ravaged China and a wildfire epidemic of “Wrestler’s Fever” hit Japan.

And on a hot Aug. 12, 1918, the Spanish Lady completed her round trip, and influenza returned to the United States.

It had been a horror voyage for the Norwegian liner Bergensfjord: 100 passengers stricken with influenza, hurried burials at sea for four dead, and day-and-night efforts by the crew to purify the ship with soap, seawater and a cooking mixture of ammonia and creosote. The liner limped into Brooklyn Navy Base, bringing the sick and the flu back to America.

The Spanish Lady now took the entire nation in her cruel grip.

“Influenza is markedly increasing, as is shown by the fact that for the week ending Aug. 15 there was one case, the week ending Aug. 22 there were eight cases, and for the week ending Aug. 29 there were 52 cases, 38 of which occurred in the last 24 hours,” reported Dr. William M. Bryan, public health sanitation officer for the First Naval District, Boston, Mass.

In city after city, military camp after military camp, influenza struck.

American Red Cross activities in Middletown, Connecticut - Influenza 1918
American Red Cross activities in Middletown, Connecticut. Emergency Hospital equipment being inspected by the committee of the Middlesex Chapter. This equipment was sent to Wesleyan University at the outbreak of the Influenza epidemic. Local Identifier: 165-WW-269B-57

In early October, the sturdy Vermont men of the 57th Pioneer Infantry Regiment of the 31st Division completed training and were on the march to board the transport Leviathan at Hoboken, N.J.

“We had proceeded but a short distance when it was discovered the men were falling out of ranks, unable to keep up,” said Col. E.W. Gibson. “The column was halted and the camp surgeon summoned. The examination showed that the dreaded influenza had hit us. Although many men had fallen out, we were ordered to resume the march.”

Influenza patients during the 1918 flu pandemic in Iowa - From the Office of the Public Health Service Historian CDC
Influenza patients during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic in Iowa – From the Office of the Public Health Service Historian/CDC

As the sick filled hospitals and the dead filled morgues, medical authorities fought the epidemic with inadequate knowledge.

“On admission, nearly all of the cases were as blue as huckleberries,” said Dr. Albert Lamb, of New York’s Presbyterian Hospital. “Most of them died… We had to stand by helpless except for what temporary reef we could give.”

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“We had a terrible time in this country (Luce County, Michigan), losing 100 persons, or one person out of 50,” said Public Health Nurse Annie L. Conlon. “I worked with Dr. Perry, our health officer, going to the logging camps in the hospital, in the homes, wherever the need was greatest at the time. We worked day and night, hardly taking time to eat.”

In St. Louis, Health Commissioner Dr. Max C. Starkloff attempted to head off the spread of flu from the East Coast with an Oct. 6 order closing schools, churches, theaters, saloons and non-essential businesses.

WWI influenza warning sign

“I looked into my waiting room (the next day) and it was black with people protesting the order,” Starkloff said.

Anger from the business community and protests from citizens cut off both from spirits and spiritual solace finally forced Mayor Henry W. Kiel to call Starkloff to his office.

“Doctor, you’ve overdone it,” Kiel said. “Understand, I’m behind you. If I thought what you were doing would help the situation, I’d say go ahead. But I’ve been told by responsible persons that your restrictions aren’t necessary. You’ve got to lighten the ban.”

“Mr. Mayor, you CAN’T do it,” Starkloff said, “and I WON’T.”

Letter carrier in New York wearing mask for protection against influenza. New York City 1918

The city stayed closed down, but the flu couldn’t be locked out, and on Oct. 15 a bizarre wedding ceremony was performed at Jewish Hospital here.

Gasping for breath in his hospital bed, US. Rep. Jacob E. Meeker, (R-Mo.) exchanged wedding vows with his secretary, Alice V. Redmon. Her bridal veil was a surgical mask and the witnesses were doctors and nurses.

The couple had been engaged for months, always waiting to find time to be married, when Meeker caught influenza.

“If you wish to marry Congressman Meeker, the wedding must not be delayed longer,” Dr. W.H. Buchs warned.

Seven hours after Judge Vital W. Garesche performed the ceremony, Meeker was dead.

The influenza epidemic was now a pandemic, striking from Cape Horn to the Arctic Circle. In India, the Associated Press reported 5 million influenza deaths.

Influenza illnesses from the Chattanooga News - October 15 1918
Spanish flu illnesses reported in the Chattanooga News – October 15 1918

“The hospitals were so choked it was impossible quickly to remove the dead to make room for the dying. Streets and lanes of the cities were littered with dead and dying people,” the wire service reported. “Burning ghats and burial grounds were literally piled with corpses, while an even greater number awaited removal from houses and hospitals.”

And the Sydney, Australia, Daily Telegraph reported that in Samoa “80 to 90 percent of the people were lying helpless; many died from starvation who might probably have recovered, for even when rice, milk and other items were sent out and delivered, the survivors were too weak to prepare and apportion the food.”

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As though washed away by the cool, bright start of November, the influenza epidemic ended in the United States.

Schools, saloons, churches and theaters reopened, and camphor, salves and rubbing alcohol were returned to the medicine cabinet.

In Western Europe, the end of the epidemic seemed to coincide almost mystically with the Nov. 11 armistice. There would be flare-ups in 1919 in Alaska, Puerto Rico, New Guinea and war-ravaged Hamburg, Germany, but the killer epidemic of 1918 was over, ending with as little apparent reason as it began.

The world buried its 21 million dead (100 to 200 million people were infected) and the now-tamed Influenza A virus subsided, beginning again its age-old pattern of change, mutation, hybridization, until it would again reach a new form man could not protect himself against.

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Hong Kong flu bad, but… Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 21 million (1969)

By Jean Anderson – The La Crosse Tribune (Wisconsin) January 12, 1969

Merrillan, Wis. — The Hong Kong flu now rampant in most parts of the nation is a relatively mild variety compared to the Spanish variety, which claimed nearly 21 million lives during the 1918 epidemic.

“Pandemic” is the proper word for the 1918 catastrophe because it was worldwide.

The 1918 pandemic struck Europe in the summer and spread to the United States that fall. The military posts in this country were particularly hard hit. Servicemen were rigorously drilling prior to embarkation for overseas duty. Many participated in forced marches, long hours on the rifle range and hours of calisthenics until they were near exhaustion and succumbed to the flu bug.

The majority of deaths during the 1918-19 Spanish influenza epidemic were attributed to pneumonia following an attack of flu.

Old hospital wards during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918

The first reported death by Spanish influenza of a Jackson County resident was Julius Benson, 21, of Black River Falls, who died Sept. 19, 1918, at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. It was reported one in every six sailors at Great Lakes had the flu.

Herbert Hoffman, 23, was the first Merrillan soldier to die of the flu. He died October 7, 1918, at Camp Grant, Ill.

By the first week in October of that year, the Spanish flu had spread throughout the county and several deaths were reported.

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An item in the Black River Falls Badger State Banner on Oct. 17 stated: “There are 100 cases of the flu in Black River Falls and more than. 1,000 cases in the county.

“Owing to the Spanish influenza scare the schools, churches and motion picture shows have been closed and other public gatherings have been forbidden in the city. Several of our soldier boys have died in the Army camps and there have been several deaths in the county.”

Records at the Jackson County Courthouse in Black River Falls disclosed that between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 that year, 53 deaths were attributed to influenza or complications following an attack of flu. There were 20 deaths in October, 17 in November, and 16 in December.

Street car conductor in Seattle not allowing passengers aboard without a mask. 1918

It is interesting to note that animals also died in large numbers of pneumonia following attacks of the flu.

Tony Hauger, 86, Black River Falls’ coldest businessman, recalls he was a clerk in Antone Johnson’s Men’s Clothing Store during 1918. “I remember people were supposed to wear masks during the epidemic whenever they came into the sore to shop, but very few bothered to wear them. The surprising thing about the 1918 flu epidemic was that so many young people died. Usually it’s the old people who die of pneumonia.”

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Frances Perry, retired city librarian, says she was a student at Oshkosh Teachers’ Normal during that time and said the gymnasium at the school was converted into a hospital, with Army cots used as beds. As there was a shortage of doctors and nurses, the school physical education teachers were put in charge.

Mrs. Gibson Gile of Merrillan recalls that her mother was seriously ill with pneumonia following the flu and a doctor informed the family she was beyond his help. A neighbor was called in to assist with the care of the family and she asked permission to try an old remedy on the patient. Steaming hot blankets were kept on the patient until the fever broke, and she soon recovered.

Influenza headlines from the Boston Globe - October 1 1918
Influenza headlines from the Boston Globe – October 1 1918

The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic reminded a former lumberjack of an incident which occurred in the woods along the Black River during the winter of 1873. A disease similar to the flu prevailed at that time and was called “horse distemper” because so many horses had the disease.

The lumberjack recalled: “A young Polish boy who could not speak English came down with the distemper and was in bad shape. He was stuffed up and something had to be done at once, His bunk was near the end of the camp and we had a few sacks of potatoes standing near him. I got the cook in and was getting ready to soak his feet in hot water and to put mustard drafts on them.

“The Polish boy kept pointing to the sacks of potatoes and trying to make us understand, and at last we caught on. He wanted a kettle of potatoes cooked, put in a sack and wrapped around him.

“The cook got the spuds ready and we put them in a feed sack, took his outside shirt off, left his inside shirt on and put them clear around him and covered him all up with blankets. We kept the kettle going all night and as fast as they would get any way cold, we would put on new hot ones.

“He was better by morning, and in a few days, was able to leave camp for his home in Trempealeau County.”

Typist wearing mask for influenza, New York City, October 1918

In February 1920, another flu epidemic spread throughout the county, and 17 deaths were reported that month. Twelve members of the James Kimball family, living five miles northwest of Black River Falls on the Alma Center Ridge, were sick with the flu, and five members died within 48 hours. They were Kimball, 58, Jimmie, 10, Arthur, 27, Beryl, 14, and Veda, 4,

Influenza, called “LaGrippe” in the early years, was recorded as long ago as 1173. From 1510 on, it was identified as the same influenza which swept the world in 1918. In the 16th Century, there were three such epidemics; in the 17th and 18th Centuries, 12 epidemics; and in the 19th, six epidemics.

Epidemics of influenza have visited the United States since 1647, when the disease was supposedly brought from Valencia, Spain, hence the name Spanish influenza.

Influenza patients during the 1918 flu pandemic in Iowa - From the Office of the Public Health Service Historian CDC

In recent years, it has been discovered there are several types of influenza, depending on the virus that causes the disease. In 1957, the Asian type claimed 62,000 American lives and the 1963 epidemic took 57,000.

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