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100 Years Ago: The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 was the Worst Plague in Human History

Submitted by Phil Devlin.

As bad as this year’s flu season may seem to us, it bears little comparison to the devastation wrought by the influenza pandemic of 1918. That pandemic may have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide, a number nearly 5 times the death total of World War I.

Recovering soldiers at Fort Lewis, Kansas

The 1918 pandemic is often erroneously referred to as the “Spanish Flu.” Spain, it seems, was one of the few countries that did not restrict press coverage of the pandemic, so many came to believe that the disease originated there; in fact, the flu most likely began in an Army camp in Kansas and was easily spread through close contact on troop ships– a perfect environment for transmission.

The most extensive study to date of the 1918-19 pandemic is the 2004 book entitled The Great Influenza by historian John M. Barry. Barry maintains that the flu came in waves, beginning in the spring of 1918 and then returning with a vengeance in mid-September of that year:
“Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December of 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century.” ( page 5)
Barry says that the virus itself is a membrane– usually spherical in shape–containing 8 genes. It is about 1/10,000th of a millimeter in size “and it looks something like a dandelion with a forest of two differently shaped protuberances– one roughly like a spike, the other roughly like a tree.” These protuberances fit into cells in the human respiratory tract “like a hand in a glove.” When that happens, the invasion has begun, and the war is on.
Ironically, the 1918 virus provoked such a powerful immunological response in young, healthy people — what is called ” a cytokine storm” –that what should be a strength for young people became a weakness: The sheer power of the immunological reaction in young people filled the lungs with debris and fluid, often killing them. Older people who had partial immunity from a flu outbreak in the 1890s had a better chance of survival.
Camp Devens in Massachusetts housed several thousand Army soldiers in 1918. The flu spread through the camp like wildfire. At its peak, the camp was “averaging about 100 deaths a day” for several weeks. Port cities such as Philadelphia were especially hard hit, often losing thousands of their citizens. Faraway areas in Alaska, however, were also hit hard. Many remote Eskimo villages lost upwards of 85% of their population.
There is no question that the Great War helped to spread the virus; in fact, it is likely that the flu killed more soldiers in World War I than did bullets. Just over 120,000 American military personnel died in the war. An estimated 65,000 of those deaths were caused by the flu. Locally, of the 4 servicemen in the HK school district who died during the war, two of them– Hilmer Johnson and Camillo Malcarne–died from pneumonia brought on by the influenza virus.
The differences between then and now both in our understanding of the nature and treatment of the influenza virus are enormous. We now have flu shots that can fully or partially immunize much of the population from the ravages of the virus. We have more available and effective medical care, including anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu that can hasten recovery from the virus if taken in time. Despite all of these modern advances, however, the influenza virus remains a serious health risk to the population, as an estimated 50,000+ Americans die from the flu in a “normal” year. 2018 appears to be an abnormal year both in the rate of infections and of deaths from the virus. As bad as that may seem, however, the influenza pandemic that hit the world in 1918 was far worse, causing more deaths than any other event in human history.
Photo: public domain

One Response to 100 Years Ago: The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 was the Worst Plague in Human History

  1. Stew Gillmor

    February 12, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    Nice review,Phil
    My late father was just old enough to serve both in WWI and WWII. After graduating from high school in Kansas City, Missouri in 1918, he joined the army and was sent to Jefferson Barracks, south of St. Louis. By fall 1918, he had influenza. He told me that he thought he was going to die. He left camp, got on a train and headed west to his home. He told his father, a physician, that he was going to be shot for going AWOL. My grandfather sent a telegram to the army physician in charge at Jefferson Barracks and received the reply, “Keep him home! I’m sending home every boy that I can.” By the way, Jefferson Barracks is the oldest continuously operating military base west of the Mississippi.