1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

Updated on April 21, 2020
Kaili Bisson profile image

Kaili is a student of history and of WWI. She has researched BEF and Canadian battles and has visited WWI battle sites, including Gallipoli.

Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas 1918

Bed after bed filled with Spanish flu patients.
Bed after bed filled with Spanish flu patients. | Source

How Did the Spanish Flu Pandemic Start?

Researchers believe that the Spanish Flu began as a "bird flu." Bird flu, or Avian influenza A, is a type of virus that occurs naturally in wild aquatic birds, though they usually don't get sick. The problem is that these viruses can be transmitted to domestic poultry, including ducks, geese and chickens. Infected wild birds spread the virus through their nasal secretions, saliva and feces.

Sometimes, these bird flus are also passed to other animals, including pigs. And this, researchers believe, is what happened in the case of the Spanish Flu. What started as a bird virus adapted and then infected pigs. The virus mutated again from swine influenza and was spread to humans. Human-to-human transmission then began when the virus adapted once more.

Why Was it Called the Spanish Flu?

American, British and French forces in WWI were eager to keep word of the flu quiet, lest their enemy Germany perceive it as a weakness. It was only when the flu reached Spain that it was reported in the press. Spain was neutral at the time, and their press was free to report on the flu. And so it became the Spanish Flu.

Origins of the Virus

Virologists, pathologists, historians and other experts who have investigated the origins of the pandemic concluded long ago that the "Spanish flu" did not originate in Spain. In fact, one strain of the flu linked to this pandemic probably got its start in western Kansas.

In February, 1918, a local doctor in Haskell County began noticing that there was a spike in flu cases among his patients, and that this particular flu appeared to be more virulent than any he had seen in the past. Dr. Loring Miner was so alarmed by this that he wrote a report and sent it off to the U.S. Public Health Service. Unfortunately, no investigation was undertaken by the government at that time. The U.S. had entered WWI in April 1917 and already had its hands full with matters of great national and international importance.

In March 1918, an outbreak of the flu appeared at Camp Funston, a WWI training base established at Fort Riley, Kansas. It is now believed that "Patient 0," who was responsible for the transmission of the flu at the camp, was a young recruit by the name of Private Albert Gitchell. Pvt Gitchell was a mess cook, responsible for preparing literally hundreds of meals a day. On March 3, 1918, Pvt Gitchell reported to the infirmary to report severe flu-like symptoms to medics. Within a week, as many as 500 soldiers had been sent to the infirmary. Within three weeks, 1,100 soldiers had been infected by the virus. Soldiers who had only minor symptoms, or none at all, moved from Camp Funston to other camps, unknowingly spreading the flu among civilian populations as well as to other recruits. Many of these soldiers were about to be mobilized to Europe to fight the war.

By the beginning of April, flu cases had peaked, and the number of patients at Funston fell as the days went by. It seemed as though the flu had run its course.

Origins of the 1918 Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu Occurred in Three Distinct Waves

There were three distinct waves of the flu during the worldwide pandemic. The first official cases appeared in early spring of 1918 and subsided by the summer of 1919. This first wave was a relatively mild strain of the virus.

During the summer of 1918, a second deadlier strain was first recognized. Pneumonia often developed quickly, with death coming only two days after symptoms first appeared. The second and third waves were also unusual in that the primary victims were not the elderly or people with underlying medical conditions. These waves targeted otherwise healthy people 20-40 years of age.

The third and final wave ran from the winter of 1918 through the spring of 1919.

Wave 1: The Spanish Flu

Chart showing the weekly combined flu/pneumonia mortality in the U.K. during the first wave of the Spanish flu pandemic.
Chart showing the weekly combined flu/pneumonia mortality in the U.K. during the first wave of the Spanish flu pandemic. | Source

The Flu Arrives in Europe

When the first wave of the flu appeared in the U.S., though it was easily spread, it didn't seem that bad. When it did hit patients hard, to the point of causing pneumonia or even death, those patients tended to be the elderly or folks with underlying health issues. So far, a pretty typical flu.

When the infected U.S. WWI recruits arrived in Europe, they were assigned to various posts based on the need to bolster fighting at critical spots along the Western Front. By May 1918, word was beginning to reach the U.S. of significant numbers of soldiers coming down with the flu. And given the conditions in the trenches, and among the general populace in Europe, it didn't take long for the disease to spread from soldiers to civilians.

But, just as the virus had mutated from bird to pig to human, it mutated again and and became deadly. Researchers now believe that there may have been another slightly different virus with a local source in France, where it spread from fowl and pigs kept near the front lines of the war, to humans. The French virus and the American virus may have even combined at some point in one or more soldiers. By August 1918, the deadly mutated virus started a second wave of infection.

A public service poster from 1925.
A public service poster from 1925. | Source

Spanish Flu: A Warning from History

Epidemic or Pandemic?

Though there is no exact definition, the outbreak of disease is generally called a pandemic when it spreads around the world to populations that do not have acquired immunity against it. Cholera, bubonic plague (Black Death), smallpox, and influenza pandemics have been responsible for countless deaths throughout history.

As troops returned home from fighting at the end of WWI, carrying the deadly disease with them, few parts of the globe were untouched. There were outbreaks in countries where the war had not even been fought, including in Asia, North and South America, Australia and even remote places like the Arctic and small Pacific Islands. In Western Samoa, for example, 30% of the men, 22% of the women and 10% of the children died from the flu.

It is now believed that the influenza pandemic of 1918 was responsible for between 50 and 100 million deaths worldwide, far greater than the total number of civilian and military causalities in WWI.

Why Was the Spanish Flu So Deadly?

By August 1918, the deadly mutated virus had reached Boston, Massachusetts. In September, numerous cases and deaths were reported in California and Texas. By October 1918, 24 countries worldwide had reported cases of the flu, with many reporting an increasing death toll.

The second and third waves of Spanish influenza were different from other strains of the flu because of how quickly they passed from person to person and how the virus acted once it entered a person's body. These strains of the virus caused a person's immune system to go into overdrive, with white blood cells attacking the infection in the lungs, causing air sacs to become inflamed, leading to pneumonia and death.

The crowded, unsanitary trenches of WWI proved to be the perfect incubator for the flu. Civilians who had been displaced by the fighting in Europe, and who were typically undernourished, couldn't hope to ward off this disease. Likewise, the vast majority of civilians at home in places like the U.S., England and Canada still lived in close, crowded conditions that led to accelerated transmission and also increased the severity of their symptoms.

Sources

  • Anon. (1914-1921) History of the War, Volume I. London UK: The Times
  • Devlin, Hannah. March 3, 2020, The Guardian. Four lessons the Spanish flu can teach us about coronavirus
  • CDC. 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus). www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html
  • Kansas Historical Society. Influenza Sign. www.kshs.org/kansapedia/influenza-sign/10369

© 2020 Kaili Bisson

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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 months ago from Canada

      Hi Flourish,

      You know, I didn't follow up to see how Pvt Gitchell made out. I assume he recovered and went on to serve overseas, as I didn't see anything to the contrary anywhere. I'll do some digging :-)

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 months ago from Canada

      Hi John,

      Yes, the 1918 flu was truly horrific in its reach. Fingers crossed we don't see the same infection rate with the virus that is currently circulating. From most accounts, the majority of folks who get COVID-19 will experience cold/flu symptoms, maybe miss a week or two of work and will recover. Somehow, I think we need to focus on protecting those who are most vulnerable, like seniors.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      5 months ago from USA

      It’s so unfortunate that patient 0 goes down in history by name. Think of the legacy of that on the family tree .... well, I guess, his extended family since I assume he didn’t have children or a wife.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      5 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Wow, I had no idea of the extent and severity of the Spanish Flu of 1918. I truly hope the Coronavirus does reach anywhere near the same level of infection and death.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      5 months ago from Canada

      Hi Pamela,

      Thank you for reading and for the feedback. It was such a hard time, and just when everyone should have been celebrating the end of a long, horrible war, they were faced with this dreadful pandemic.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 months ago from Sunny Florida

      The Spanish flud pandemic was also horrible, especially with WWI happening. Your article gives us all the details and it is so well-written. Thank you for this review of a pandemic that hit our country so hard.

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