Remembering the Flu Pandemic of 1918
100 years ago, an invisible menace killed more Americans in a few months than died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. Between March and October 1918, some 675,000 Americans would perish from one of the most severe outbreaks of influenza the world had ever seen.
What became known as the “Spanish Flu” began at the Camp Funston Army training camp in Kansas. In early March, soldiers preparing for deployment to the First World War
started complaining of fevers and aches. It was not uncommon for diseases to sweep through military bases, so the illnesses did not attract much attention. But some of the sick soldiers began to cough up blood. They had difficulty breathing and began to turn a blueish color. Their lungs filled with a thin fluid that led to suffocation. Within just a few weeks, 50 service men had died.
Other soldiers who were just becoming infected with the flu
took it with them to other bases in the U.S. and then, via overcrowded ships, to Europe. The Great War was a perfect breeding ground for the flu. The virus quickly spread among the soldiers, sailors and citizens of Europe and beyond. In Wales, Alaska, 178 of 396 residents died in just one week after a mailman, arriving by dog sled, brought the virus with him along with the mail. By October, Washington DC had run out of coffins because 70 to 100 people were dying from the virus every day. Dr. Victor Vaughan, president of the American Medical Association, helped treat victims in Boston. In his memoirs, he described stacking dead bodies like “cord wood” in the morgue.
Due to the outbreak, life expectancy in the United States fell almost 12 years during 1918. While it is impossible to know the exact figure, most estimates place the worldwide death toll from the influenza pandemic
at 50 million with some estimates rising to 100 million.
The virus was given the name “Spanish Flu” because the first news reports about the pandemic came out of Spain, which was neutral during the First World War, so there was little or no censorship of news out of that country.
The month of March would be a good time for History and STEM classes to use eLibrary to revisit the devastating impacts of both World War I and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
PBS’ American Experience has an excellent documentary, “Influenza 1918
,” that is available for streaming in the classroom via PBS Passport.
Feel free to use the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Infographic below: