Although the influenza epidemic killed millions worldwide, it has forever been known as the “Spanish Influenza” pandemic. There are several theories about this. Writing in America’s Forgotten Pandemic: the Influenza of 1918 (3 stars, slightly dated as it was originally published in the 1970s) by Alfred W. Crosby, the author speculates that in Spain, a neutral power during the war, strict military censorship of Spanish newspapers wasn’t being exercised, hence the news of the pandemic first appeared in Spain thus giving the epidemic its name.
This is confirmed by an abstract from a 2008 article published in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases available online from the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health in which the authors state:
On 22 May 1918, the epidemic was a headline in Madrid’s ABC newspaper. The infectious disease most likely reached Spain from France, perhaps as the result of the heavy railroad traffic of Spanish and Portuguese migrant workers to and from France. Although a great deal of evidence indicates that the 1918 A(H1N1) influenza virus unlikely originated in and spread from Spain, the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic will always be known as the Spanish flu.
That is to say, it is unlikely that the influenza virus originated in or spread from Spain.
Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu.
Photo of Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C., during the great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 – 1919, also known as the “Spanish Flu”. Patients are set up in rows of beds on an open gallery, separated by hung sheets. A nurse wears a cloth mask over her nose and mouth.
In America’s Forgotten Pandemic, the author says the disease we know as the Spanish Influenza, actually began in the United States in March of 1918.
Where did it come from? China, India, France – there were vague and ex post facto reports of flu or flu-like epidemics in those lands in the spring. But if we insist on contemporary documentary evidence from qualified physicians, then we must say that the new influenza appeared first in March (1918) and in the United States.
He speculates that American troops being sent to Europe carried the disease with them.
Mounted on a wood storage crib at the Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 19 October 1918. As the sign indicates, the Spanish Influenza was then extremely active in Philadelphia, with many victims in the Philadelphia Navy Yard and the Naval Aircraft Factory. Note the sign’s emphasis on the epidemic’s damage to the war effort.
[Images courtesy of Wikimedia and Experience Project.]