My mother was born back in 1918 during World War I, and she would have been 102 years old this coming November. Today, with so many states contemplating reopening over the next few days, we ought to consider what our grandparents were dealing with 102 years ago.
My dear old grandmother called it “the scarecrow,” but in reality, it was the Spanish flu pandemic, not so much different than the Covid-19 we’re witnessing today. The deadly H1N1 influenza virus pandemic lasted almost 36 months, from January 1918 to December 1920. The second wave of the pandemic was much more deadly than the first, and then there was a third wave.
The Spanish flu infected some 500 million people worldwide – about a third of the world's population. In the U.S. alone, there were around 105 million people in 1918, and about 28% of the population became infected. Anywhere from 500,000 to 850,000 died from that flu. The death toll worldwide is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. The actual number of deaths will probably never be known, because media coverage was nothing compared with today. On top of that, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, typhoid, yellow fever, diphtheria and cholera all occurred near the same time.
The outbreak was widespread in the summer and autumn (in the Northern Hemisphere); influenza is usually worse in winter. October 1918 was the month with the highest fatality rate of the whole pandemic.
There have been several theories as to the pandemic's geographic origin, but one hypothesis is that it originated at Fort Riley, Kansas in viruses of poultry and swine, which the fort bred for food. On March 4, 1918, a company cook named Albert Gitchell, from Haskell County, reported sick at Fort Riley, making him the first recorded victim of the flu. The Army post was a military facility that was training American troops during World War I. Within days, 522 men at the post had reported sick, and by March 11, 1918, the virus had reached Queens, New York.
From there the respiratory virus spread rapidly throughout the troops. Social distancing was not possible. Soldiers were transferred in troop carriers overseas and were packed in like sardines. The overcrowded camps and hospitals were an ideal environment for the spread of the virus. The hospitals were also treating thousands of victims of poison gas attacks, and other casualties of war, and 100,000 soldiers passed through every day. The soldiers in the trenches didn’t stand a chance, because of malnourishment and poor hygiene, everything combined to promote a bacterial superinfection.
Wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United States.
Spain remained neutral during the war, but the pandemic knew no borders; it spread across the border from France anyway. Since Spain was not in the fighting it was not bound by wartime censorship. Newspapers were free to report the epidemic's effects.
When their popular King Alfonso XIII came down with the flu, that story spread like wildfire around the world, giving rise to the name Spanish flu.
Some claim that the flu was the reason World War I came to an early conclusion when Germany surrendered. Apparently all of their soldiers were down with the flu.
I think I will just remain isolated until after the second and third waves pass.
Reference: “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” by John Barry
To reach Ted W. Stillwell send an e-mail to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.