Recent generations knew little about the 1918 influenza outbreak unless they were fans of the television show Downton Abby, where Carson the butler, the countess, and Lavinia came down with the “Spanish Flu.” Much is being written about it now in the moment of our own pandemic. While writing about soldiers from Ohio during and after World War I (WWI), I’ve read a lot about the epidemic and have included some cites at the end of this post if you are interested in reading more. Much of the information below is from the November 2017 Smithsonian Magazine, which included a section titled “The Next Pandemic.” John M. Barry’s article, “Journal of the Plague Year,” used the lessons learned from 1918 and suggested what might happen if we weren’t prepared for the next one. And here we are. More on that later.
Did the pandemic start before 1918 in France or Asia, or in the United States. Research is leaning toward the latter. Haskell County is in the southwest corner of Kansas near Oklahoma and Colorado. Hog raising was a main industry back then, and the area is also a migratory route for seventeen bird species. Today we know that bird flu viruses can also infect hogs, and when a bird virus and human virus infect a pig cell, genes can be changed, resulting in a new virus. This caused a flu outbreak in the local community in January 1918.
Several men from Haskell exposed to the virus went to Camp Funston in central Kansas, and on March 4, the first soldier reported ill. Within two weeks 1,100 soldiers at the large training facility were admitted to the hospital and thousands more were sick. Thirty- eight eventually died. These soldiers are believed to have carried the flu to other army camps, Twenty-four of thirty-six larger U. S. camps had outbreaks before carrying the disease overseas. One of the more highly publicized outbreaks was reported March 11 when one hundred and seven soldiers fell ill at Fort Riley.
Meanwhile, what we now call “community spread’ occurred when those outside of the military became infected. Local Kansas newspapers and then others around the country began reporting increases in numbers of patients with lagrippe, or pneumonia. They didn’t yet know they were dealing with a new virus.
Although the pandemic lasted only fifteen months, by the end of the year more than a fifth of the world’s population was infected. Because of the lack of proper recordkeeping at the time, it can only be approximated that between fifty million and one-hundred million people died worldwide, including some estimates of 675,000 Americans.
The influenza spread so quickly for several reasons. WWI was still raging with men and women across the world confined to close quarters in trenches, hospitals, and transport ships crossing back and forth across the ocean. Physicians were scarce. Half of all physicians under 45 years of age were serving in the military.
Unlike now, newspapers played down the seriousness of the 1918 epidemic. This too had to do with the war. President’ Wilson’s Sedition Act made it illegal to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal…language about the form of government of the United States…or to urge, incite or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of anything or things…necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” This included spreading pessimistic stories. Public health officials and the media were encouraged to lie.
In September, the disease broke out in the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The public was assured that the city could confine the disease. When deaths occurred, it was reported that it wasn’t the Spanish flu. Although more died, the papers continued to report that the flu posed no danger. By September 26 the flu had spread across the United States. But Philadelphia decided to hold the September 28 Liberty Loan parade attended by hundreds of thousands. At physician urging, reporters wrote stories concerning the dangers—but their papers refused to print them. Three days after the parade, the flu spread. Twelve thousand Philadelphians died in six weeks, seven hundred and fifty-nine in one day. Similar situations occurred in Arkansas and San Antonio to mention a few, until people began to stay home.
Writers as Historians
With the media withholding information during the war, it was left to authors, witnesses to events, to publish it later. Kathleen Anne Porter’s 1939 fictional account of the epidemic, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is often noted as one of the best. Thomas Wolfe described the influenza’s effect on boarders at his mother’s boarding house in Look Homeward Angel (1929). Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922) takes place as a troopship leaves New York City for France the summer of 1918 when a “particularly bloody and malignant type” of flu breaks out on board. I wonder if my grandfather Pearl Darnell was witness to any of this. He served in the Navy shuttling to and from Europe on transport ships during the war. Fortunately, to my knowledge, he never became ill himself.
You can read an article that Cather wrote for the Red Cross Magazine in 1918 while drafting One of Ours and a story by Lieutenant Commander Henry A. May, a senior medical officer of the troopship USS Leviathan. May recorded the progress of the disease as it spread among passengers and crew. These and many other first-hand accounts, war chronology, and biographical notes are in A. Scott Berg’s World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It. His work in editing this collection of news stories and literary works from 1914-1921 encompassing all points of view and experiences is an excellent resource on the war. Head notes for each selection help put the accounts and the authors in historical context. If you ever see a reference to a literary work or author related to WWI that you want to know more about, it would be wise to look at Berg’s index to see if there are selections for you.
After fifteen months and about the time the war ended, the Spanish Flu began to disappear. A third wave arrived in January 1919 but ended that Spring. On April 3, 1919, President Wilson collapsed at the Paris Peace Conference. The report was that it was due to a stroke, but he had a temperature of 103 degrees, coughing fits, and other symptoms common to the influenza in Paris, which had already taken one of his aides. Subsequent research indicates that Spanish Flu can affect one’s cognition, which some believe could be a cause of Wilson’s subsequent decline.
Many notable individuals were infected and lists of notables who died include: the John and Horace Dodge brothers, co-founders of Dodge Car Company; artist Gustav Klimt; and Fredrich Trump, grandfather of the President. Demographic studies were done years later regarding those infected and which ones died as reported by country, profession, and other characteristics. One of the most interesting finds is that fatality rates for pregnant women was significantly higher than any other group, at 23% to 71% depending on a variety of demographics.
The 2020 Outbreak
Let’s return to John M. Barry’s Smithsonian article. In the final paragraphs, he describes a 2017 pandemic “wargame” that he was asked to participate in to address how public health officials in Los Angeles would respond to a new pandemic. He posits that the effectiveness of any interventions—vaccine, hand washing, etc.—depends on public compliance and trust in what they are being told.
But in the exercise, the health officials again failed in their responses using statements that deliberately minimized the danger. Instead of leadership, a “no reason for concern” was re-played, just as in 1918. And just as in 2020. As writer and philosopher George Santayana stated, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Sources including those in links provided above are:
Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohioans relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle. Her academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She enjoys speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry and her current projects, which include a novel about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s and a compilation of her father’s World War 2 letters. She blogs about history and writing and can be reached through the website, https://www.ann-otto.com/ , or at Facebook@Annottoauthor and www.Goodreads.com