Tagged: Spanish Influenza

Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1919 Killed 675,000 in United States


Washington, D.C., circa 1919. “Walter Reed Hospital flu ward.” One of the very few images in Washington-area photo archives documenting the influenza contagion of 1918-1919, which killed over 500,000 Americans and tens of millions around the globe. Harris & Ewing glass negative.

Christopher Helin 1920s 6.5x8.5 glassneg eb 092014

The flushing of streets and sewers by sprinkler trucks was a widespread if not terribly effective public-health measure during the “Spanish influenza” epidemic of the late teens. LOC

San Francisco circa 1919. “Nash Two-Ton Tanker Truck.” This begins a new series of photos, scanned by Shorpy from large-format negatives taken by or for Christopher Helin, travel and automotive editor of the San Francisco Examiner from about 1915 to 1930.



The mortality rate among adults in the prime of life was so high that many parents of young children died.

November 24, 1925. Washington, D.C. “City orphans at Ambassador Theatre.” LOC

http://www.history.com/topics/1918-flu-pandemic source for number of deaths


My Grandfather Never Went to Church Because of the Spanish Influenza

My Grandfather, Mr. Bill, known to the family as “Pop,” never attended church. This was highly unusual since everyone else in the family had to go to church unless you were sick-in-the-bed and even then you were expected to listen to the service on the radio. (I didn’t, I now confess.)

I often wondered about Grandfather’s lack of church attendance. I asked my mother. “He’s a Methodist,” she explained. Yet as I got older and wiser the idea that my grandfather didn’t have to go to church because he was a Methodist began to wane. That couldn’t be it. There had to be a better reason. But what was it? Only thirty-five years later did I finally learn the truth.

My older brother, Will, clued me in during a rambling conversation about the family we were having a few years back. “Pop told me he didn’t go to church because during the Spanish flu epidemic, people were told not to congregate in public places.”

Given the little that was known about the Spanish flu in 1919, that was sound advice. Don’t spit. Don’t congregate in public places. Wash your hands. “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases,” said the US Public Health Service, which urged Americans to cover their noses and mouths when coughing. (Something I wish people would have the courtesy to do now.)

My Grandfather was a civic leader. Certainly he wanted to be a good example to others and not spread germs. So I’m sure he washed his hands, covered his nose and mouth when he sneezed, and he stayed away from public places which included church on Sundays.

Yet he told Will this in 1969. The Spanish flu epidemic had occurred in 1919, more than fifty years before. This is the reason Grandfather would not attend divine service? Does this strike you as odd? I mean, after the epidemic waned, were people supposed to avoid attending church for the next fifty years? Didn’t the US Public Health Service advise people they could go back into public places, including church, after the Spanish Influenza finally stopped? Certainly they must have, don’t you think?

But maybe not. Grandfather gave out that he was dubious that the all-clear had been sounded as far as church was concerned. While he didn’t avoid any other place of public gathering, he avoided the Methodist Church up on Center Street like the plague — even in 1969. Presumably he thought the place so contaminated with germs that a sane person dare not venture in. Those foolish enough to have done so must have come reeling out of the sanctuary so afflicted with tuberculosis and St. Vitus dance as to expire immediately on the church steps. No wonder the Methodists built a new church in 1970 and moved.

Said my brother, Will, of Pop’s reasoning, “that excuse worked for him in 1919 and he just kept using it.”

My grandfather, W.A. Livingston, in a photo I took in 1970. We had been fishing one afternoon in one of the large ponds on our property and my grandfather caught this twelve pound large-mouth bass. (My grandfather fished in a suit.) We were fishing off a dock and we didn’t have a net with us. The fish was jumping and didn’t want to be caught and my grandfather very skillfully reeled the fish in until it was close to the dock. He wasn’t using heavy fishing line and couldn’t just pull the fish out of the water because the fishing line would break. Because this type of fish has lots of spiny points in its gills which can cut you, I took my shirt off, wrapped it around my hand, leaned way over and slipped my hand through one of the gills and brought the fish up.

The Spanish Influenza – Why Medical Researchers Continue Their Investigation To This Day

Research into the Spanish Flu began in the early 1900s

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So why are physicians and medical researchers from all sorts of disciplines in many countries spending time and money on researching a pandemic that happened almost one hundred years ago? Because it is still with us in various, albeit less lethal strains, and because the Spanish flu had a vastly higher death rate than any other flu.

The following statistics are from a scientific paper, “1918 Influenza:The Mother of All Pandemics” published in Emerging Infectious Diseases Vol. 12, No. 1, January 2006.

The impact of this pandemic was not limited to 1918–1919. All influenza A pandemics since that time, and indeed almost all cases of influenza A worldwide (excepting human infections from avian viruses such as H5N1 and H7N7), have been caused by descendants of the 1918 virus, including “drifted” H1N1 viruses and reassorted H2N2 and H3N2 viruses. The latter are composed of key genes from the 1918 virus….An estimated one third of the world’s population (or ≈500 million persons) were infected and had clinically apparent illnesses during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic.

Hit the pause button a moment and think about this. One Third of the entire population of the world contracted the Spanish flu? One third of the entire world? And it all happened in less than 18 months with the bulk of cases concentrated in a twelve month period. That is one hell of a flu. This is the scary part:

The disease was exceptionally severe. Case fatality rates were >2.5%, compared to
Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe.

In an article published in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine (abstract available here) in 2002 the authors state the following:

An estimated 50 million people, about 3% of the world’s population (1.8 billion at the time), died of the disease. Some 500 million, or 28% (≈1/4) were infected.

Pause button again. Three percent of the humans on the globe at that time died from the Spanish influenza? Three percent? That’s astounding. Unfortunately, it may have been much worse. The same authors write:

The recorded statistics of influenza morbidity and mortality are likely to be a significant understatement. Limitations of these data can include non-registration, missing records, misdiagnosis, and nonmedical certification, and may also vary greatly between locations. Further research has seen the consistent upward revision of the estimated global mortality of the pandemic, which a 1920s calculation put in the vicinity of 21.5 million. A 1991 paper revised the mortality as being in the range 24.7-39.3 million. This paper suggests that it was of the order of 50 million.

However, it must be acknowledged that even this vast figure may be substantially lower than the real toll, perhaps as much as 100 percent understated.

I broke out this last sentence. Using their figure for the population of the world (which they take from historical estimates made by the US Census Bureau), the math is simple. 50 million humans dead equals 3% of the population of the globe. 100 million dead of Spanish Influenza would mean SIX PERCENT of all the human beings on the face of the earth died in a very short period of time.

Children in the remote Alaskan village of Nushagak survived the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic. However, most of their parents and grandparents succumbed to the 1918 pandemic virus, probably because they had not been exposed to an earlier H1-like influenza virus as a result of their geographic isolation. The photograph was taken in the summer of 1919.

Let me make this suggestion, if your Congressperson is committed to making deep cuts in the Federal budget, please suggest to them that we not cut the funds being used to investigate the Spanish Influenza.

(Statistical note: the research teams who wrote these articles took their estimate of global population in 1918-1919 from two different sources which accounts for the difference since the first article says 1/3 of the global population was infected and the second article says 1/4 of the global population was infected.)

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia and Experience Project.]


The Spanish Influenza – It Started in Great Britain (We’re Almost Certain Not Quite)

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So we know the Spanish Influenza began in America. But not so fast. Highly respected scientific sources do not agree that the terrible pandemic started in the United States. Writing in the British medical journal Lancet (abstract available here) in 2002, medical researchers state:

We deduce that early focal outbreaks of influenza-like disease occurred in Europe and on the balance of probability the Great Pandemic was not initiated in Spain in 1918 but in another European country in the winter of 1916 or 1917. We suggest that the pandemic had its origins on the Western Front and that World War I was a contributor.

Writing in 2005, the same authors state in the medical journal Vaccine (abstract available here):

…the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 was a cataclysmic outbreak of infection wherein over 50 million people died worldwide within 18 months…early outbreaks of a new disease with rapid onset and spreadability, high mortality in young soldiers in the British base camp at Etaples in Northern France in the winter of 1917 is, at least to date, the most likely focus of origin of the pandemic. Pathologists working at Etaples and Aldershot barracks later agreed that these early outbreaks in army camps were the same disease as the infection wave of influenza in 1918. The Etaples camp had the necessary mixture of factors for emergence of pandemic influenza including overcrowding (with 100,000 soldiers daily changing), live pigs, and nearby live geese, duck, and chicken markets, horses and an additional factor 24 gases (some of them mutagenic) used in large 100 ton quantities to contaminate soldiers and the landscape. The final trigger for the ensuing pandemic was the return of millions of soldiers to their homelands around the entire world in the autumn of 1918.

US Army Camp Hospital No. 45, Aix-Les-Bains, France, Influenza Ward No. 1

[Image courtesy of Experience Project.]


The Spanish Influenza – Did It Start in America?

Part 1

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.]


Incompetence, Stupidity, and Cowardice: The Royal House of Savoy and the Governance of Italy, 1861-1946

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World War One wasn’t the nation building exercise the elites hoped it would be. And while the soldiers may have shouted “savoia” as their battle cry, the House of Savoy came out of the war weakened in prestige, especially outside of their traditional base of support in Northern Italy. As became apparent early on, Italy couldn’t prosecute the war without massive financial and material assistance from the Allies. Even that wasn’t enough. The Austro-Hungarians, who had a very long military tradition, beat the Italians like a drum in almost every battle. To keep the Italian Army from collapsing completely, British, French, and even American troops had to be sent to steady the Italian front line.

World’s first airmail stamp issued by Italian postal administration for Torino-Rome flight – This is a 1903 express delivery stamp overprinted for the special flight in 1917.

However, we should recognize the major contribution the Italians made to Western Civilization during World War One: they issued the first air mail stamp.

At the end of World War One, what was the “butcher’s bill” for the Kingdom of Italy? 651,000 military deaths. 500,089 Italian civilians dead, most by starvation, lack of medical care, and exposure. Total dead: 1,240,000 or 3.48% of the population. And these figures are probably too low. Record keeping was hardly exact. There were also the wounded to take care of after the war. 953,886 to be exact. (Source: La Salute Pubblica In Italia Durante E Dopo La Guerra, (translating as: Public Health in Italy During and After the War) New Haven, Yale University Press, 1925.)

Italy stumbled out of the war having lost 3 and 1/2 percent of her population and having increased her national debt over 350%. (Source: The Pity of War: Explaining World War One by Niall Ferguson)

As the expression goes, “things couldn’t get worse.” But life teaches all of us that when things are really, really bad, they can sometimes get worse. And for Italy, for Europe, in fact for the entire world, they did. While 16,000,000 or so human beings died in World War One, a disease appeared out of no where killed almost 4 times more than that by the end of 1919.

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.

The Spanish Influenza Pandemic killed the largest number of people of any pandemic and is the worst medical catastrophe in recorded human history. And it didn’t even last very long. Less than twelve months give or take.

Source: National Archives

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.”

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia and The National Archives.]