1918 -19 Spanish Flu Pandemic Killed Millions

Created on Feb 09, 2018 by Kathy Pinna
Update: 2/09/2018 The 2018 flu season is shaping up to be the deadliest and most widespread flue season in years. According to the CDC "Americans have been hospitalized for the illness at a rate of 59.9 per 100,000 people — the highest rate ever recorded by this point in a recent flu season". And the flu season can go another 5 to 9 weeks. But this season doesn't compare to what happened 100 years ago, in 1918.

Birds to pigs to people - this is the likely chain of events that lead to the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. As World War 1 was ending in 1918, a new more devastating killer emerged - a worldwide flu epidemic. It infected 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 50 - 100 million. 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 this is 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. But wherever it originated, it exploded in the European theater (where soldiers were in close proximity) and quickly spread to other parts of the world.


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1918 -19 Spanish Flu Pandemic Killed Millions

A nurse during the 1918 pandemic

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

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

"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

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

Red Cross Ambulance

St. Louis flu victim, 1918.

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

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

Getting dressed 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

Even street cleaners wore masks.

Popular Science's 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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