The Spanish Flu Pandemic Killed Far More People Than Died in World War One


Letter carrier in New York wearing mask for protection against influenza. New York City, October 16, 1918.

(photo and quote below courtesy of US National Archives)

Letter carriers, mass transit workers, and others who came in contact with the public, were especially vulnerable to disease. Wearing a face mask helped them avoid contagion.


Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918

(Photo courtesy US National Archives)

There was great fear of the disease as you might imagine. Even people in the pink of health often died within hours of the onset of symptoms. People were refused entrance to buildings, not allowed on streetcars or into public spaces unless wearing masks.

Young Adults Had Mortality Rate 20 times higher

“Influenza and pneumonia death rates for those 15–34 years of age in 1918–1919, for example, were >20 times higher than in previous years (35). Overall, nearly half of the influenza-related deaths in the 1918 pandemic were in young adults 20–40 years of age, a phenomenon unique to that pandemic year.”

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On the date the Armistice which ended World War One —the 11th hour or the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918—- sixteen million human beings had died.

From Princeton’s history site:  The total number of casualties in World War I, both military and civilian, was about 37 million: 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 6.8 million civilians. 

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Princeton Archives World War One Casualties

Life the Western world could not have gotten worse. But it did.  Very much worse. For beginning in the fall of 1918, just a few months before the Armistice which brought an end to the slaughter of World War One, people in Europe and the United States and Canada, began to die of a mysterious disease, marked by very high fever, which doctors could not identify, treat, or control.

We know this in history today as the Spanish influenza pandemic, this last word meaning it wasn’t confined to a smaller geographical area such as a region or country or even continent. That’s an epidemic. A pandemic is something that affects the entire globe.




Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic. December 1918.
(photo courtesy of US National Archives)

The Spanish Influenza Pandemic killed at a minimum over fifty million people, the largest number of people killed by any pandemic known. It is the worst medical catastrophe in recorded human history. Incredibly, for all the lives it took, the pandemic didn’t even last very long. Less than twelve months give or take.

Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify this disease which was striking so fast and so viciously, eluding treatment and defying control. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others succumbed after a few days; their lungs filled with fluid and they suffocated to death….The plague did not discriminate. It was rampant in urban and rural areas, from the densely populated East coast to the remotest parts of Alaska. Young adults, usually unaffected by these types of infectious diseases, were among the hardest hit groups along with the elderly and young children.

The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.

If this last sentence doesn’t cause your jaw to drop then here it is again, all in caps: “IN ONE YEAR, THE AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY IN THE UNITED STATES DROPPED BY 12 YEARS.”


Sources: US National Archives, US National Institutes of Health, US Center for Disease Control, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: the Influenza of 1918 by Alfred W. Crosby

[Images courtesy of  The National Archives.]