The Spanish Flu
History’s Deadliest Pandemic
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 stands as the most lethal pandemic in history, infecting 500 million people worldwide, which was roughly one-third of the global population. It caused between 20 million and 100 million deaths. If the higher estimate holds, it means the pandemic claimed more lives than both World Wars combined.
Influenza pandemics global death count by Our World in Data
By March 1918, the United States had been at war with Germany and the Central Powers for almost a year. In this period, the US transformed its modest prewar army into a massive force, eventually deploying over two million soldiers to Europe.
To support this military effort, several American forts underwent significant expansion. Among these was Fort Riley, Kansas, where Camp Funston was established to accommodate about 50,000 new army recruits. In early March 1918, a soldier with a fever reported to the camp’s infirmary. In just a few hours, over a hundred soldiers exhibited similar symptoms, and the numbers grew in the subsequent weeks. By April, American troops landed in Europe, carrying the virus with them. This marked the onset of the pandemic’s first wave.
US public health advertisement highlighting Spanish flu dangers during World War I, 1918
While this initial outbreak was generally mild, with most patients showing common flu symptoms and recovering within days, the situation changed drastically by fall. A fierce second wave struck. Many victims, after showing symptoms, died within hours or days, with their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid, leading to suffocation. Reports emerged across the US of individuals feeling sick in the morning and passing away before the day’s end.
Illustrated Current News’ Public Health Guidelines, 1918
What set the 1918 flu apart was its ability to severely affect healthy young adults, a demographic usually resistant to such infections. This included many World War I soldiers. Shockingly, more American soldiers succumbed to the flu than those killed in battle. The movement of troops in packed ships and trains played a significant role in spreading the virus globally.
Contrary to its name, the Spanish Flu did not start in Spain. Spain, being neutral during World War I, had an uncensored media that promptly reported the flu’s emergence, first in Madrid in late May 1918. However, countries involved in the war suppressed such news to maintain morale. Because Spanish outlets were the primary sources of flu updates, many mistakenly believed the flu began in Spain. The Spanish themselves thought the flu originated from France, dubbing it the “French Flu.”
Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu by Edvard Munch, 1919
With no effective treatment at hand, many doctors recommended aspirin, recently made available by multiple producers after Bayer’s patent expired in 1917. Medical advice at the time recommended doses as high as 30 grams daily, a level now recognized as toxic. Current guidelines warn against consuming more than four grams in a day. Excessive aspirin intake mirrors several pandemic symptoms, such as fluid accumulation in the lungs. This has led to theories that some reported flu deaths might have been due to aspirin overdose.
By the summer of 1919, the pandemic had ended. Those infected had either passed away or gained immunity. Decades later, in 2008, scientists identified the 1918 flu’s deadly characteristic: a trio of genes that allowed the virus to damage a person’s bronchial tubes and lungs, leading to bacterial pneumonia.
Words of wisdom
“Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.” —John Lennon
“Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.” —Marcel Proust
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” —Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
“It is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” —Arthur Schopenhauer