Spanish Flu 1918: 19 Sickening Events During the Spanish Flu of 1918
19 Sickening Events During the Spanish Flu of 1918

19 Sickening Events During the Spanish Flu of 1918

Larry Holzwarth - May 23, 2019

19 Sickening Events During the Spanish Flu of 1918
A victim of Spanish Flu is removed from a home in St. Louis during the height of the pandemic. Wikimedia

15. The flu attacked communities for a relatively short time.

Although the pandemic lasted from 1918-1920 around the world, including in the United States, it did not ravage individual communities for that entire period, including during the deadliest period of the pandemic, the second wave. In most areas, the flu struck with ferocious speed, remained virulent in the area for about a month or so, and moved on, leaving the survivors to deal with the damage that it had done. The months in which it was at its peak in the United States were the months when epidemics were still fairly common in the larger cities and towns, particularly along the East Coast, including cholera and typhoid fever, which led the flu to draw little media attention.

In the United States and especially in war ravaged Europe, the flu was often considered to be a consequence of the ongoing war when it struck. Even in neutral Spain, which inadvertently gave the flu its name, it was considered to be a by-product of the global disaster of the Great War. Its economic impact was limited due to the overall impact of the war. Although individual communities suffered temporary losses, especially in service industries, they were limited by the short duration of the illness within their own areas, while the long-term economic impact of the war continued, masking much of the losses caused by the pandemic. The health care industry, and the pharmaceutical companies which made and sold aspirin, profited from the Spanish Flu.

19 Sickening Events During the Spanish Flu of 1918
Edvard Munch’s “Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu”. Wikimedia

16. The Spanish Flu was contracted by many noted leaders of the day

The Spanish Flu was first reported worldwide when it struck Alfonso XIII, the King of Spain, in 1918. His illness, which was grave and reported around the world, gave the impression that the flu originated in Spain and thus bestowed the name Spanish Flu on the pandemic. He survived. He was far from the only notable to contract the illness. In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson contracted the disease, and some believe its ravages contributed to his suffering a stroke later. Walt Disney contracted the flu while in training to serve in the Ambulance Corps at an Army camp outside of Chicago. Artist Edvard Munch suffered through the flu, survived, and later painted Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, contracted the flu while returning from France aboard USS Leviathan. The flu led to pneumonia, and Roosevelt was carried off the ship on a stretcher upon arrival in the United States (he was not yet confined to a wheelchair). Some who did not survive the flu were artist Gustav Klimt, Frederick Trump (grandfather of US President Donald Trump), Bill Yawkey (owner of the Detroit Tigers Baseball Club), and Edmond Rostand, whose most famed work was the play Cyrano de Bergerac. Some sources claim the Dodge Brothers, John and Horace, who founded the Dodge Automobile Company, died of Spanish Flu, though others state that Horace died of cirrhosis of the liver.

19 Sickening Events During the Spanish Flu of 1918
A compilation of the symptoms of the flu reported at various US Army camps during the pandemic. US Army

17. The Spanish Flu pandemic was truly global in its scope

Of the areas of the world which were populated at the time of the pandemic only one – an island in the delta of the Amazon River near Brazil known as Marajo – did not report an outbreak of the Spanish Flu. Even the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where Napoleon had spent his last years of exile a century earlier, was stricken by the Spanish Flu, though no deaths were reported there. The French colony of New Caledonia, similarly to American Samoa, imposed a blockade of its shores and prevented any deaths to the flu. Other areas seemed to be particularly vulnerable despite efforts to prevent the spread of the flu. Casualties around the world were staggering.

In the United States alone up to 675,000 fatalities were attributed to Spanish Flu and the secondary infections it caused, more than died in the four years of the American Civil War a half-century earlier. Native American tribes suffered a disproportionate number of deaths, and in Alaska entire communities of Inuit natives were wiped out. Great Britain suffered 228,000 dead. Brazil lost its President, Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves, and over 300,000 of its citizens. Iran lost almost 22% of its total population during the pandemic. Even the tropical paradise of Tahiti was stricken, so severely that it was estimated to have lost up to a quarter of its population when the pandemic struck there, as with so many locations, brought to the isolated island by a visiting ship.

19 Sickening Events During the Spanish Flu of 1918
A contemporaneous chart depicts the spike in deaths of the second wave of the pandemic. Wikimedia

18 The legacy of the Spanish Flu pandemic

By the end of the year 1920, the Spanish Flu pandemic appeared to have finally faded away. Memory of the global disaster faded with it. During its height, media coverage was limited and what was present was for the most part localized, rather than covering the disease as it spread around the globe. With the end of the World War, once the flu had passed through one’s community, citizens wanted to get on with their normal lives. In the United States, the issue of Prohibition and the decade which became known as the Roaring Twenties moved to the fore. The flu which had ravaged the country became just another of the epidemics which were at the time a part of life. The world merely shrugged it off and moved forward.

Because of its coinciding with the Great War, as it was known at the time (it wouldn’t become known as World War I until the name World War II was coined), the overall impact on the public psyche in most countries was limited. With the majority of its fatalities among healthy young men, as with the war, it came to be considered a part of the war, a view especially prevalent in Europe. Its impact in Asia and the Pacific was relatively unknown to the great majority of people who were not in some manner connected to those regions. The same can be said about its impact in Africa. Not until the late 20th century, when public awareness of bird flu and other forms of influenza virus increased, was the Spanish Flu Pandemic brought to the public consciousness.

19 Sickening Events During the Spanish Flu of 1918
To this day the source of the Spanish Flu pandemic is debated by scholars and scientists. Wikimedia

19. Where did Spanish Flu come from?

The origins of Spanish Flu remain debated among medical professionals, scientists, epidemiologists, historians, and others. Some postulate that the virus originated in birds and hogs, was transmitted to humans, and then transferred around the world. A leading theory for years was that the epicenter for the virus was Fort Riley, Kansas, among the animals bred to feed American troops. Others postulate that the virus originated in birds as a type of avian flu and transferred directly to humans, with humans passing the virus on to swine. Still, others suggest that the virus originated in China, supporting the belief that it was passed to the troops in the trenches of Europe by Chinese laborers brought to the battlefront to build infrastructure.

In the 21st century efforts to understand how the virus developed, what caused it to mutate into the deadlier virus of the second wave, and how it spread, continue to produce often conflicting theories. The fact is though efforts to understand what the virus was continuing, a definitive answer remains elusive. The pandemic which killed so many people that it was compared to the Black Death of the Middle Ages – and may well have killed a greater percentage of the population of Europe than its predecessor – remains a mystery, even as its history becomes more widely known.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Origins of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic (1918-1920) and its relation to the First World War”. Anton Erkoreka, Journal of Molecular and Genetic Medicine. November 30, 2009. Online

“How a killer flu spread from western Kansas to the world”. Beccy Tanner, Wichita (Kansas) Eagle. February 19, 2018

“1918 Pandemic Influenza: Three Waves”. Article, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Online

“The Plague of the Spanish Lady – The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 – 1919”. R. Collier. 1974

“Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It”. Gina Kolata. 2001

“A History of Influenza”. C. W. Potter, Journal of Applied Microbiology. October, 2001

“The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History”. John M. Barry. 2005

“America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918”. Alfred W. Crosby. 2003

“History of 1918 Flu Pandemic. Article, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Online

“The Great Pandemic”. Article, AHA Staff. May 4, 2009. Online

“Inside the Swift, Deadly History of the Spanish Flu Pandemic”. Toby Saul, National Geographic History Magazine. Online

“Out in the Cold and Back: New-Found Interest in the Great Flu”. Guy Beiner, Cultural and Social History, Volume 3. 2006

“A Cruel Wind: Pandemic Flu in America, 1918-1920”. D. Pettit & Janice Bailie. 2008

“How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America”. John M. Barry, Smithsonian Magazine. November, 2017

“Ten Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu”. David A. Lovett, October 24, 2017

“The legacy of the Spanish Flu”. Suzanne Shablovsky, Science Magazine. September 22, 2017. Online