1918 -19 Spanish Flu Pandemic Killed Millions

Updated on Jan 25, 2021. Originally added on Feb 09, 2018 by Kathy Pinna
Update: 1/25/2021 As of January 25 2021 there have been 2,124,193 deaths worldwide from the current pandemic; over 420,000 in the United States. 98,794,942 people in the world have been infected so far. While the existence of viruses was first discovered in 1892, it wasn't until the 1930s (and the development of the electron microscope) that a virus was first seen. So in 1918, medicine didn't know how to cope with the virus which caused the "Spanish Flu". Science and medicine have developed in the past 100 years but human behavior has not - in 1918, people "got tired of wearing masks" and didn't want to stay home, prolonging the pandemic and causing more human devastation. While these are vintage photos of a pandemic 100 years ago, change the fashion and you will see many familiar sights.

Birds to pigs to people - this is the likely chain of events that lead to the 1918 "Spanish Flu" Pandemic. Just as World War 1 was ending in 1918, a new even more devastating killer emerged - a worldwide flu epidemic. It infected 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 50 - 100 million (human population worldwide was 28% of today). Usually, the flu strikes harder at the young and elderly, but this one mainly killed (previously healthy) adults, leaving a generation of orphans.

Called the Spanish flu because Spain was where the first outbreak was reported (since World War 1 was still being fought, there was a blackout on news in other locations), one current suspicion is that the origin was in China - or Haskell County, Kansas or France -but no one knows for sure. Wherever it originated, it exploded in the European theater (where soldiers were in close proximity) and quickly spread to other parts of the world.

1918 -19 Spanish Flu Pandemic Killed Millions

A nurse during the 1918 pandemic

Influenza Epidemic - Nurse

Journal of the American Medical Association, 1918: "The 1918 has gone: a year momentous as the termination of the most cruel war in the annals of the human race; a year which marked, the end at least for a time, of man's destruction of man; unfortunately a year in which developed a most fatal infectious disease causing the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Medical science for four and one-half years devoted itself to putting men on the firing line and keeping them there. Now it must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all--infectious disease." (12/28/1918)

Seattle policemen

Seattle Policemen 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Police wore masks given to them by the Red Cross - civilians were encouraged to stay off the streets and at home.

The flu ward at Walter Reed Hospital

Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward

"Since noon today our camp has been under quarantine to prevent an epidemic of Spanish influenza. We have had no cases thus far but it is the intention of the medical officers to prevent any case of the disease from making an appearance. All the men who have even slight colds have been put into separate barrack which, of course, were immediately christened 'the TB ward' by the rest of the company." - Letter home from a soldier 9/1918. Things would get much worse.


Typing in a mask

Typist - Influenza Epidemic New York City

People were advised to wear masks everywhere - at work and even at home.

Red Cross Ambulance

St Louis Missouri 1918

St. Louis flu victim, 1918.

In Seattle, passengers weren't allowed to board a streetcar without a mask

Influenza - Public Transportation

Many complied with containment measures (such as mask wearing), while others thought that the measures were useless and flaunted them.

A flu ward in Connecticut, 1918

Flu victims - CT

Getting dressed for school

Getting Ready for school

A popular song among school children in 1918 - 1919 was: I had a little bird, it's name was Enza . . . I opened up the window and in flew Enza.

1918 New York City

Streetcleaner, 1918 flu pandemic

Even street cleaners wore masks.

Popular Science's flu mask

Popular Science Flu Mask

In 1919, Popular Science disagreed with laws that mandated the wearing of flu masks. This was a DIY suggestion - with a hole for a cigarette but (since it was illegal to exhale outside of the mask) you had to swallow the resulting smoke.

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