Friday, July 2, 2010

The National Archives Remembers "The Forgotten Plague"

A Makeshift Military Influenza Ward In Iowa, 1918.
(All Images Courtesy of the National Archives.)

It ended the lives of Guillaume Apollinaire (age 38) and Edmond Rostand (age 50), along with 50 to 100 million others worldwide. In less than two years it killed more people than any other communicable disease in human history, including the Black Death, nearly six centuries earlier. It has been called "the greatest medical holocaust in history," and also "the forgotten plague."

It infected between one-fifth and one-third of the world's population, yet its origin remains a mystery, and if it were to strike again today, it would still be incurable. No nation on earth wanted to be named as the source of this killer disease, so the French said it was German, and the Germans claimed it was French. It was the equally inaccurate name give to the scourge by the British that finally stuck: worldwide this deadliest of all viruses came to be forever known as the "Spanish Flu."

Already Overwhelmed Army Hospitals
Overflowed With Patients. (1918)

A new online exhibition from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) aims to show how the 1918 Influenza Pandemic changed life in this country. Some scientists believe this incredibly virulent strain of flu actually began it's deadly journey across the globe at an American Army base, Camp Funston, (now Fort Riley) in Kansas.

In the early morning of March 11, 1918, Albert Mitchell, a company cook, reported to the infirmary complaining of a sore throat, headache, and muscle aches. He was found to have a slight fever, and bed rest was ordered. By noon of that day, 107 soldiers showed similar symptoms. Within two days, a total of 522 people were sick. Many were close to death with severe bacterial pneumonia--the most common complication of the flu, and one which was almost invariably fatal. (This was well before antibiotics were in general use.) Other military bases reported similar situations almost immediately. One of the most horrific aspects of the pandemic was that most of its victims were previously healthy, young adults, cut down in the prime of life.

A 1918 Patent Medicine Advertisement,
For A Tonic (Falsely) Claiming To Clear The Lungs.

An Army doctor described the agony of the soldiers: "The faces wear a bluish cast; a cough brings up the blood-stained sputum. In the morning, the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cordwood." Once a patient began to exhibit severe symptoms, such as a high fever, a wracking cough, or ragged breathing he was usually doomed. The victim's lungs filled with fluid, and he literally drowned.

World War I did not directly cause the flu, but the conditions it created allowed the illness to become a "perfect storm." Massive numbers of soldiers, who lived in close quarters, were shipped overseas, and the virus hitched a ride with them. Men in the trenches had weakened immune systems caused by severe stress, malnutrition, chemical attacks, and unsanitary conditions. In short, the war set up circumstances in which a huge number of especially susceptible persons were all located close enough to easily transmit the virus. Modern methods of transportation just made it that much easier for the infected to (unwittingly) share the experience.

Hospital Personnel Wore Masks,
And So Did The General Public, 1918.

Soon the civilian population of the United States was as afflicted as its soldiers. There were innumerable cases of people at work suddenly feeling ill, developing flu symptoms, and dying before they could get home. A reporter related the story of four young women playing bridge late into the night--by the time the sun rose, three had died from the flu. One physician described influenza patients who "develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen" and "died struggling to clear their airways of a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed from their nose and mouth." Doctor's could do little but try to make patients comfortable while they "struggle for air until they suffocate." Soon to be, or already, orphaned children skipped rope to this grim rhyme:

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.

1918 Poster At A Chicago Theatre,
Implores The Infected To Stay Home.

The National Archives points out that the 1918 Flu Pandemic was extensively documented. So how could it have become nothing but a footnote in American history? There are many reasons why the ravages of this plague were "forgotten." Military censorship, and the fact that the pandemic was short-lived limited media coverage. Many simply did not know that vast numbers of people had succumbed. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries epidemics were not uncommon: typhoid, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and cholera had all struck within recent memory. Also, by coinciding with the deaths and media coverage of World War I, obituaries of flu victims appeared side by side with the death notices of soldiers killed at the front or dying at home from wounds. Some statisticians actually counted the citizens killed by the pandemic as "war fatalities." This went along with the psychology of many who viewed the flu as an extension of the tragedy of the war.

Seattle Police Ready To Stem The Spread Of Flu.

The 1918 Flu Pandemic ended as rapidly as it began. The virus which caused the deadliest influenza in history was thought to mutate with extreme rapidity. Genetic change made in deadly, and another genetic change is thought to have made it once more relatively benign. Geneticists have recently reconstructed the deadly virus in the laboratory from the tissue of a dead soldier. In light of the 2009 "swine flu" outbreak it is interesting (and frightening) to note that the 1918 virus was found to be a strain of the H1N1 virus.


  1. Gina Kolata (science reporter for the NY Times) wrote an excellent bookon the subject, Flu: the story of the great influenza pandemic of 1918 and the search for the virus that caused it(2001). Thanks for the post on this exhibit. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Another important book is "A Cruel Wind: Pandemic Flu in America, 1918-1920," (Timberlane Books, 2008 by Dr. Dorothy Pettit (PhD History/Univ New Hampshire) and Dr. Janice Bailie (PhD Biochemistry/Queen's Univ). They note that the pandemic killed 675,000 Americans and somewhere in the range of 50-100 million worldwide.

  3. Another good book on this epidemic is The Great Influenza, by John Barry. PBS also did a show called "Killer Flu" which was very interesting.


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