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The 1918 Flu Pandemic or Spanish Flu

Updated on September 24, 2009

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

In 1918 much of the world was at war. The world would soon come under siege by something much smaller and deadlier than enemy forces. More people would die because of this this small invader than were killed during the entire first world war.

Between 1918-1919 an influenza A virus (H1N1) caused a pandemic infection that would lead to the death of 50-100 million people worldwide, infecting a fifth of the population.

The influenza of 1918 killed more people in two years than in the four years of the bubonic plague, the Black Death and according to author John Barry of the Great Influenza, the virus "killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years."

Of those who died from the Spanish Flu an estimated 675,000 were Americans.

Sources CDC.

Image: Public health poster from Spanish flu era January 1918. Tuberculosis Association. Wikimedia. Public Domain.

The 1918 Flu Virus

The possible source of the 1918 influenza A virus was a newly emerged virus from a swine or an avian host of a mutated H1N1 virus.

Bird Flu Virus Picture (1918 Flu Virus). ID#:8243. CDC. Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Cynthia Goldsmith, 2005. Public domain.

The Concern Spreading the Virus

Text on the Sign:

Spanish Influenza has endangered the prosecution of the WAR in Europe.

There are 1500 cases in the Navy Yard. 30 deaths have already resulted.

SPITTING SPREADS SPANISH INFLUENZA. Don't Spit.

About the sign: This sign was 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.

Image: Influenza Precaution Sign. Photo #: NH 41731-A. Naval Historical Center Website.

More Books on the 1918 Flu on Amazon

The Prevention and Treatment of Influenza

To prevent the spread of influenza at the time, the public was advised to cover each cough and sneeze with handkerchief. Avoid crowds. If possible, walk to work.

In addition they were admonished to not spit on floor or sidewalk or use common drinking cups and common towels. Avoid excessive fatigue. If taken ill, go to bed and send for a doctor.

Image Source: INFLUENZA Poster. Treasury Department. United States Public Health Service. Washington, D. C. 1918. Printed Ephemera Home. Library of Congress. Public Domain.

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

American Experience - Influenza 1918 in the Amazon Spotlight

American Experience - Influenza 1918
American Experience - Influenza 1918

A special from the American Experience, the Influenza 1918 film was originally broadcast on PBS in 1998.

The flu epidemic would kill more than 675,000 people in the United States before disappearing as mysteriously as it began.

 

The Spread of the Flu Pandemic in the United States

In this Map of the 1918 Flu Pandemic you can see how the influenza spread across the United States within less than a month.

Image: Map of the 1918 Flu in the United States. Office of the Public Health Service Historian.

The Great Influenza in the Amazon Spotlight

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

Author John Barry takes a look at the deadliest pandemic in history in the Great Influenza.

Barry points out that at the time politicians and military commanders were focused on the first World War, so ignored warnings from scientists, ultimately contributing to conditions that allowed the virus to spread and to kill.

 

Interview with the Author of The Great Influenza

Interview with John M. Barry author of "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History" recorded February 9, 2005 in Seattle .

The Disease

Many people died within the first few days after coming down with the infection; others died of later of complications. Almost half of those who died from the 1918 influenza were young, healthy adults.

Image: Public Library of Science Journal. Spanish Flu Hospital. Emergency military hospital during influenza epidemic. 1918 - 1919. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license. Wikimedia. National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, D.C., United States.

The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. One fifth of the world's population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.

The Deaths from the 1918 Flu

This graph of the Mortality Rates from the 1918 Flu - United States and Europe looks at the number of people and the months that people were dying in four different cities: New York, London, Paris and Berlin from June of 1918 to March of 1919.

Image: Influenza Pandemic: Mortality in America and Europe During 1918 and 1919. National Museum of Health and Medicine

America's Forgotten Pandemic in the Amazon Spotlight

America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918
America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918

Author Alfred W. Crosby recounts the course of the influenza pandemic during the panic-stricken months of 1918 and 1919

He looks at the impact of the pandemic on American society, and explores why this major event may have been forgotten.

Crosby also discusses the recent outbreaks of diseases, including the Asian flu and the SARS epidemic, America's Forgotten Pandemic remains both prescient and relevant.

 

The Health Care Professionals

Nurse wearing a mask as protection against influenza. September 13, 1918.

In October of 1918, Congress approved a $1 million budget for the U. S. Public Health Service to recruit 1000 medical doctors and over 700 registered nurses. Nurses were scarce, as their proximity to and interaction with the disease increased the risk of death.

Source: Selected Records from the National Archives. The Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Record held at National Archives at College Park, MD. Record number 165-WW-269B-5.

Memories of the 1918 Flu Pandemic on YouTube

William Follett's memories of the 1918 flu pandemic. Recorded in 2008.

The Survivors

It has been over 90 years since the 1918 Pandemic took the lives of over 50 million people worldwide. There were still many others who survived the flu, but many children who were left orphaned, or lost many family members because of the Spanish Flu.

Many of the survivors of the pandemic are now in their 90's or 100's. Fortunately many of their memories have been captured on paper or in film. Some of them are include in the links below.

What is interesting about the survivors of the 1918 flu, they may have the cells which hold the key to helping scientists figure out how to build immunity to the H1N1 flu.

Image: A child with influenza, her mother, and a visiting nurse from a local Child Welfare Association. History of Medicine (NLM)

Teaching Students about the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

The 1918 Spanish Influenza is a good topic to have children and teens study for the science, the history and the medicine.

Students may be interested in knowing that the flu was most deadly for people ages 20 to 40, so many school-aged children and teens might have been the ones to survive the flu when their parents might have been the ones to have died.

Students might also want to know that when the pandemic was at its peak, authorities closed schools and other public gathering places to limit the spread of the disease. Closing schools is an option for helping to control the H1N1 flu.

Image: The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919. Documents & Media. The Mullens children (and some neighbors) ready for school in Charleston, West Virginia. The Office of the Public Health Service Historian. Library of Congress.

Pandemic 1918 Video

A short slide show about the influenza pandemic of 1918 created to use as a lesson opener for middle school and high school history classes. Created with iMoive.

Purple Death : The Mysterious Flu of 1918 in the Amazon Spotlight

Purple Death : The Mysterious Flu of 1918
Purple Death : The Mysterious Flu of 1918

This medical history begins by describing how the influenza of 1918 spread across the world, infecting 2 billion people and killing 20 to 40 million at a time when people could not see a virus.

The second half of the book is devoted to the efforts of scientists, once the pandemic subsided, to determine its cause.

 

Books on the 1918 Flu and Epidemics for Children on Amazon

The Hope About H1N1 - We are Better Prepared

The hope with the current H1N1 flu outbreak is that through massive public education about the need to wash hands and cover coughs, staying away from people who are sick, staying home if sick and staying informed about the latest information this bout of influenza will be better dealt with than the 1918 pandemic.

Gregory Hartl, spokesman for the WHO (World Health Organization) had this to say at a press conference referring to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic:

  • I think the world is infinitely better prepared than it was 90 years ago.
One thing for sure is that there is a better understanding now, than there was 90 years ago about the virus, influenza and ways to prevent and manage the flu if it does hit.

Image Source: CDC

Benefiting Save the Children

This lens benefits Save the Children, the leading independent organization creating lasting change in the lives of children in need in the United States and around the world.

Do you think we are heading towards another major pandemic?

Reader Feedback on the Spanish Flu or 1918 Pandemic

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    • OUTFOXprevention1 profile image

      OUTFOXprevention1 5 years ago

      Great to know since we don't want another pandemic! Hygiene is important for prevention!

    • catbehaviors profile image

      catbehaviors 6 years ago

      Hello, just lensrolled to my lens on the Flu of 1918. Great lens! :)

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 6 years ago from So Cal

      I added this as a featured lens on my genealogy lens on my family. My great grandmother talks about the flu in her letters to my grandmother. I was delighted to find something on the topic. Angel blessed.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Very interesting lens. Great job.

    • ChristopherPick profile image

      ChristopherPick 6 years ago

      From osteopathic records from 1917-18 it seems that people receiving spinal manipulation, as from chiropractors and osteopaths, where 40 times less likely to die than those relying on conventional medicine.

      What is more, a colleague of mine in the USA visited a small town on a special celebration day, commemorating the day in 1918 when a chiropractor arrived and the deaths from flu stopped!