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Doctors watch over patients at Camp Funston, an Army base in Kansas, where some experts think the 1918 flu originated.

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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.5, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.5, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Science, Technology, and Society • Global Connections

FLASHBACK

World History

The Killer Flu of 1918

More than 100 years before the Covid-19 pandemic, a powerful flu killed tens of millions of people worldwide and brought life in many U.S. cities to a standstill 

As You Read, Think About: How does the 1918 pandemic compare with the one today?

When Violet Harris, a 15-year-old in Seattle, Washington, learned that officials were closing schools to stop the spread of a deadly disease, she responded like many students: with excitement. 

“It was announced in the papers tonight that all churches, shows, and schools would be closed until further notice, to prevent Spanish influenza from spreading,” she wrote in her diary on October 5, 1918. “Good idea? I’ll say it is! So will every other school kid.”

But her initial thrill didn’t last. As the flu spread through her community, Violet began to worry, especially when her best friend, Rena, became infected. “I stayed in all day and didn’t even go to Rena’s,” Violet wrote weeks later. “The flu seems to be spreading. And Mama doesn’t want us to go around more than we need to.”

If her experience sounds familiar, that’s because Violet lived through a pandemic too. More than 100 years before Covid-19, the world was gripped by a disease known as Spanish influenza or the Spanish flu. 

Experts estimate that by the time that flu subsided in 1919, one in every three people worldwide had been infected and at least 50 million had died. Though far fewer people have died from Covid-19, many historians see similarities between the two pandemics. Just as today, officials back then had to make difficult decisions about closing schools and implementing social distancing. 

“I’m often struck by how ancient this [current] pandemic feels,” says Laura Spinney. She’s the author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. “We don’t have a vaccine yet, so the only way we can slow the spread of the disease is to use these social distancing measures, and they are not new. They were used in 1918.” 

Violet Harris was a 15-year-old living in Seattle, Washington. When she learned that officials were closing schools to stop the spread of a deadly disease, she responded like many students: She was excited.

“It was announced in the papers tonight that all churches, shows, and schools would be closed until further notice, to prevent Spanish influenza from spreading.” That is what Violet wrote in her diary on October 5, 1918. “Good idea? I’ll say it is! So will every other school kid.”

But her initial thrill did not last. The flu spread through her community. Violet began to worry, especially when her best friend, Rena, became infected. “I stayed in all day and didn’t even go to Rena’s,” Violet wrote weeks later. “The flu seems to be spreading. And Mama doesn’t want us to go around more than we need to.”

If her experience sounds familiar, that is because Violet lived through a pandemic too. More than 100 years before Covid-19, the world was gripped by a disease known as Spanish influenza or the Spanish flu.

Experts estimate that by the time that flu let up in 1919, one in every three people worldwide had been infected. At least 50 million people had died. Far fewer people have died from Covid-19. But many historians still see similarities between the two pandemics. Back then, officials had to make the same difficult decisions being made today. They had to decide about closing schools and implementing social distancing.

“I’m often struck by how ancient this [current] pandemic feels,” says Laura Spinney. She is the author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World. “We don’t have a vaccine yet, so the only way we can slow the spread of the disease is to use these social distancing measures, and they are not new. They were used in 1918.”

Coyne family/Raymond Coyne/Mill Valley Public Library

During the 1918 flu pandemic, not wearing a mask was illegal in parts of the U.S.

Origins of the Outbreak

Despite being called the Spanish flu, some experts think the virus originated in the U.S. But nobody knows for sure. 

What is known is that on March 4, 1918, a soldier showed up with the flu at Camp Funston, an Army base in Kansas where soldiers were training for World War I (1914-1918). Soon more than 1,000 men reported to the camp hospital with similar symptoms, and 38 died. 

As thousands of Americans went to Europe to fight in the war that spring, they took the flu with them. 

At the time, the U.S. and many European nations censored the news during war. It was illegal to publish anything that might hurt war efforts, including reports that a disease was spreading among troops. But Spain, which did not fight in the war, did not censor its press. Because journalists there often reported on the disease, it became known as the Spanish flu.

At first, the disease was no worse than the seasonal flu, so health officials did little to prepare for a major outbreak. But soon the virus became stronger. In August 1918, a second—and more deadly—wave swept around the globe. Returning soldiers brought this new superflu back to crowded Army bases in the U.S. 

Most flus endanger the very old and the very young. But this flu was different. Most victims were between the ages of 20 and 40. They would turn blue in the face, have trouble breathing, and bleed from the nose and mouth. 

Despite being called the Spanish flu, some experts think the virus originated in the U.S. But nobody knows for sure.

What is known is that on March 4, 1918, a soldier showed up with the flu at Camp Funston. That was an Army base in Kansas where soldiers were training for World War I (1914-1918). Soon, more than 1,000 men reported to the camp hospital with similar symptoms. Thirty-eight of those men died.

That spring, thousands of Americans went to Europe to fight in the war. They took the flu with them.

At that time, the U.S. and many European nations censored the news during war. It was illegal to publish anything that might hurt war efforts. That included reports that a disease was spreading among troops. But Spain, which did not fight in the war, did not censor its press. Journalists there often reported on the disease, so it became known as the Spanish flu.

At first, the disease was no worse than the seasonal flu. That is why health officials did little to prepare for a major outbreak. But soon, the virus became stronger. In August 1918, a second and more deadly wave swept around the globe. Returning soldiers brought this new superflu back to crowded Army bases in the U.S.

Most flus are dangerous for the very old and the very young. But this flu was different. Most victims were between the ages of 20 and 40. They would turn blue in the face, have trouble breathing, and bleed from the nose and mouth.

George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Baseball players wore masks during a game in 1919.

Deadly Mistakes

The U.S.—and the world—was not prepared to stop such a deadly disease. For one thing, with so many nurses and doctors stationed in Europe because of the war, hospitals in the U.S. were understaffed. The war also created the perfect conditions for a contagious virus to spread. Factories were packed with workers producing ships and guns, and barracks were crowded with soldiers. That meant large numbers of people were in close contact.  

Many officials also downplayed the threat of the virus or spread misinformation. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson never mentioned the flu in a public address (even though it’s believed he contracted the disease in 1919). Another top government official assured Americans that “there is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” Rumors also spread that Germany, which opposed the U.S. in the war, had planted the disease to infect American soldiers and their allies.  

The U.S. and the world were not prepared to stop such a deadly disease. For one thing, many nurses and doctors were stationed in Europe because of the war. That left hospitals in the U.S. understaffed. The war also created the perfect conditions for a contagious virus to spread. Factories were packed with workers producing ships and guns. And barracks were crowded with soldiers. That meant large numbers of people were in close contact.

Many officials also downplayed the threat of the virus or spread misinformation. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson never mentioned the flu in a public address (even though it is believed he got the disease in 1919). Another top government official assured Americans that “there is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” Rumors also spread that Germany had planted the disease to infect American soldiers and their allies. Germany had fought against the U.S. in the war.

50 MILLION

Estimated number of people worldwide who died from the 1918 flu pandemic

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“Because of the war, there was a concerted effort to keep morale up, which turned out to be counter­productive,” says John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza.

Indeed, the refusal to acknowledge the severity of the crisis proved deadly—most notably in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On September 28, 1918, about 200,000 people attended a parade to support the war effort. Although doctors had urged city officials to cancel the event, it went on. As the crowd cheered the floats and troops, the virus silently spread. Over the next two weeks, about 4,500 Philadelphians died. 

“So many died that they keep putting them in garages,” Philadelphia resident Ann Van Dyke later recalled. “Garages full of caskets.” 

“Because of the war, there was a concerted effort to keep morale up, which turned out to be counterproductive,” says John M. Barry. He is the author of The Great Influenza.

Indeed, refusing to admit how serious the crisis was turned out to be deadly. A notable example was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On September 28, 1918, about 200,000 people there attended a parade to support the war effort. Doctors had urged city officials to cancel the event. But the parade went on. As the crowd cheered the floats and troops, the virus silently spread. Over the next two weeks, about 4,500 Philadelphians died.

“So many died that they keep putting them in garages,” Philadelphia resident Ann Van Dyke later recalled. “Garages full of caskets.”

How the 1918 Flu Improved Health Care

The 1918 flu led to big changes in health and medicine. Before then, many wealthy white people incorrectly believed that immigrants and poor people were more susceptible to diseases simply because of who they were, rather than because of their poor living conditions, inadequate nutrition, and long working hours. But the 1918 flu proved that nobody is immune to illness.  

As a result, world leaders started placing a greater emphasis on health care. An international group for fighting epidemics—a forerunner of today’s World Health Organization—was formed in 1919. Scientists also devoted more time and resources to the study of diseases, eventually leading to the creation of the first flu vaccine in the 1940s.

The 1918 flu led to big changes in health and medicine. Before then, many wealthy white people incorrectly believed that immigrants and poor people were more susceptible to diseases simply because of who they were, rather than because of their poor living conditions, inadequate nutrition, and long working hours. But the 1918 flu proved that nobody is immune to illness.  

As a result, world leaders started placing a greater emphasis on health care. An international group for fighting epidemics—a forerunner of today’s World Health Organization—was formed in 1919. Scientists also devoted more time and resources to the study of diseases, eventually leading to the creation of the first flu vaccine in the 1940s.

“The Roughest Time”

In October, the death toll in the U.S. skyrocketed. About 195,000 Americans died from the flu in that month alone. Hospitals were overrun with patients. Workers set up emergency clinics in parks and fields. Many U.S. cities shut down theaters, restaurants, churches, and schools—including the school Violet Harris attended in Seattle. Officials required people to wear masks and urged social distancing.  

“That was the roughest time ever,” Glenn Holler of North Carolina said later. “People would come up and look in your window and holler and see if you was still alive.”

Then, almost as fast as it had spread, the flu disappeared. That was partly because so many people had already been infected by the virus—roughly one in three—that they’d developed immunity to it. Life in many places returned to normal. Violet went back to school on November 14, after a month and a half of lockdown.  

“Our teachers were pretty lenient today,” she wrote in her diary. “Except Miss Streator [her Latin teacher]. She gave out the words just the same as if we hadn’t had six weeks to forget them in.”

In October 1918, the death toll in the U.S. skyrocketed. About 195,000 Americans died from the flu in that month alone. Hospitals were overrun with patients. Workers set up emergency clinics in parks and fields. Many U.S. cities shut down theaters, restaurants, churches, and schools. That included the school Violet Harris attended in Seattle. Officials required people to wear masks and urged social distancing.

“That was the roughest time ever,” Glenn Holler of North Carolina said later. “People would come up and look in your window and holler and see if you was still alive.”

Then, the flu disappeared almost as fast as it had spread. That was partly because so many people—roughly one in three—had already been infected by the virus. They had developed immunity to the virus. Life in many places returned to normal. Violet went back to school on November 14, after a month and a half of lockdown.

“Our teachers were pretty lenient today,” she wrote in her diary. “Except Miss Streator [her Latin teacher]. She gave out the words just the same as if we hadn’t had six weeks to forget them in.”

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Today, U.S. health officials encourage people to wear masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Back to Normal?

A third wave of the flu followed in the winter and spring of 1919, but it wasn’t as lethal. By May of that year, the flu had mostly burned itself out. In all, 675,000 Americans died during the pandemic—more than the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in all the wars of the 20th century combined. 

Yet the 1918 pandemic was soon forgotten, overshadowed by World War I. That is, until Covid-19 exploded into a pandemic earlier this year. Now many people are reexamining the 1918 pandemic—and its aftermath—for a preview of how Covid-19 might change society. 

One positive that came out of the 1918 flu, for example, was our expanded knowledge of science and medicine (see sidebar, above). That has given researchers today many advantages in the fight against Covid-19. 

Ultimately, historians say, we can take some comfort in knowing that after the 1918 flu, life eventually returned to normal—even if the pain of the pandemic was long-lasting.

“The evidence suggests that societies do bounce back quite quickly from pandemics, even from the 1918 flu,” Spinney says. “The trouble is that at the individual level, the price paid was huge amounts of misery and suffering.” 

A third wave of the flu followed in the winter and spring of 1919. But it was not as deadly. By May of that year, the flu had mostly burned itself out. In all, 675,000 Americans died during the pandemic. That was more than the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in all the wars of the 20th century combined.

Yet the 1918 pandemic was soon forgotten. It was overshadowed by World War I. That is, until Covid-19 turned into a pandemic earlier this year. Now, many people are reexamining the 1918 pandemic and its aftermath. They are looking for a preview of how Covid-19 might change society.

One positive that came out of the 1918 flu, for example, was our greater knowledge of science and medicine (see sidebar, above). That has given researchers today many advantages in the fight against Covid-19.

The pain of the pandemic was long-lasting. But in the end, historians say, we can take some comfort in knowing that after the 1918 flu, life eventually returned to normal.

“The evidence suggests that societies do bounce back quite quickly from pandemics, even from the 1918 flu,” Spinney says. “The trouble is that at the individual level, the price paid was huge amounts of misery and suffering.”

Write About It! Compare and contrast the 1918 flu pandemic with the Covid-19 pandemic. How are they similar? How are they different? Use details from the article to support your ideas.

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