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Contagious Disease, Origin of 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Updated on January 15, 2016

Bury the Dead

120 million people died from influenza in 1918
120 million people died from influenza in 1918

There Is A War On

Army Surgeon General William Gorgas was one of only a handful of men who understood the potential for an outbreak of serious contagious disease in the military training camps. His stated goal was, for the first time in history, fewer American soldiers would die from disease than from combat.

Simultaneously, President Wilson had activated the entire nation to war. American soldiers represented the final hope for war-weary allies.

The government expanded the draft for males from ages 21 - 30 to now include males ages 18 - 45. On May 23, 1918, the Provost Marshal Enoch Crowder issued his work or fight order. He stated that all men within the enlarged age group would be called within a year, an estimated thirteen million to register September 12.

The country was galvanized by patriotic fervor to fight a war. No flue was going to stop, or even slow the training of American soldiers, the selling and buying of war bonds, or the production of machinery and goods needed by the military.

In other words, no one was willing to act upon warnings by Gorgas regarding the extreme over-crowding of barracks, the mixing of new, susceptible recruits with experienced, immune soldiers or the necessity of quarantine for one week of new recruits or returning soldiers.

In two areas, the military superiors to Gorgas listened intently. The first area was the arrangement of adequate and filtered water systems. The Army had experience with typhoid. The second area was venereal disease. After those two points were acted upon, nothing was more important or allowed to interfere with the call to arms.

Adding to the equation, 1918 was the coldest winter on record in many areas of the nation. Men huddled around stoves in large numbers and in close proximity. The situation was ripe for infectious disease, and some disease was anticipated.



In Philadelphia the number of dead overwhelmed the city's ability to handle bodies.
In Philadelphia the number of dead overwhelmed the city's ability to handle bodies. | Source

Haskell County, Kansas

Loring Miner was a practicing doctor in Haskell County early in 1918. He had patients who presented with common symptoms of flue. He diagnosed the disease as influenza, but of a type he had never seen before. This disease was violent, rapid and sometimes lethal.

The most robust citizens were becoming sick and dying as suddenly as if shot. The disease overwhelmed Miner with patients. Miner considered his experience so unusual, and the disease so dangerous that he formally warned national public health officials about it,

Influenza was not a reportable disease. Nor was influenza a disease that was tracked for contagion and containment. It was the flue. Miner's warning of "influenza of severe type" was the only reference in public health reports anywhere in the world for the first six months of 1918.

Then the disease disappeared. By mid-March schools reopened and people returned to work. Haskell County was the first outbreak in 1918 suggesting a new influenza virus was adapting to man. Had the nation not been at war, the virus may never have spread from the sparsely populated Kansas area.

The same week that a dozen people in Jean, Kansas, fell ill, a soldier named Dean Nilson came home to Jean on leave from Camp Funston, located three hundred miles away within the Fort Riley Army base. Another man, just as his child fell ill, went to visit his brother stationed at Fort Riley. There was only a trickle of travelers between Haskell County citizens and the soldiers at Camp Funston, but the trickle was enough.

Camp Funston held fifty-six thousand green troops. Typical of army bases across the country, the camp was over-crowded, and had seen record cold. The men were stacked in bunks with inadequate clothing, blankets or heat.

On March 4 a private at Funston reported ill with influenza. Within three weeks eleven hundred soldiers were hospitalized while thousands more were receiving treatment. Thirty-eight men died. That was higher than generally expected from a flue bug, but not high enough to draw attention.

Meanwhile Funston fed a stream of men to other American bases and to Europe. And the virus mutated from a mild version into a lethal version.


A Foreshadow of Trouble

Two weeks after the first case at Funston, on March 18, influenza surfaced at Camp Forrest and Camp Greenleaf in Georgia. Ten percent of the forces would report sick. Spring 1918, twenty-four of the thirty-six largest army camps experienced an influenza outbreak. The cities adjacent to the military camps also experienced an April outbreak of influenza.

Again nearly all of the troops recovered, but the disease continued to spread. Along with the arrival of American troops in Brest, France came an eruption of influenza. More publicized due to the neutrality of Spain, was the outbreak in Spain which gave the disease its' name, "Spanish influenza."

Influenza reached Shanghai toward the end of May then moved on to New Zealand and Australia. In Sydney in September the disease sickened thirty percent of the population. The disease at this point was not as lethal as it had been in Haskell. It was mutating.

In Louisville, Kentucky a disturbing statistic appeared. The death rate was high and, even more disturbing, forty percent of those who died were aged twenty to thirty-five. This was a frightening statistic in that the flue, when fatal, killed the weakest of the population, not the strongest.

Between June 1 and August 1, 200,825 British soldiers in France, out of two million, were too sick to report for duty even in the midst of desperate combat.

Then the disease was gone, almost.


1918 emergency hospital in school auditorium in Oklahoma.
1918 emergency hospital in school auditorium in Oklahoma. | Source

Swarming, Mutating, and Adapting

The 1918 influenza outbreak began with a bird that infected swine. The human population became infected. On occasion, humans can become infected with a disease from animals, but very rarely does the virus mutate in its' human host to infect other humans. In 1918 this rare occurrence happened. As the influenza virus adapted to spreading from human to human, the disease was at first violent and lethal as in Haskell County.

In succeeding generations, the virus became more mild. Then as the disease became better and better at adapting to human hosts, it passaged into lethal again. The second wave developed slowly.

In early August the crew of a steamship proceeding from France to New York was hit with influenza and all of the seamen were sick. On August 12 the Norwegian freighter Bergensfjord arrived in Brooklyn after burying four men at sea, dead of influenza. Ambulances transported many of the sick to an area hospital.

On the three continents the killing was about to begin. In Brest, France, and on the West African coast and at Commonwealth Pier in Boston. All three places serviced ships and disembarking servicemen.

At the pier the navy operated a receiving ship which was a barracks where as many as seven thousand sailors lived in transit. On August 27, two sailors reported to sick bay with influenza. On August 28, eight more sailors reported sick. On August 29, fifty-eight men were admitted.

Men began to die. The second wave was crashing inland. Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City were first struck. One in four people became sick. The city of San Francisco seemed at first to escape and then just as the population rejoiced, the disease struck in force. Chicago, Minneapolis, New Orleans and by September every city in the country was dealing with a deadly outbreak of influenza that would kill over 120 million people world wide in a population of one third of today's population.

Both doctors and generals thought the influenza had run its course in the spring. However, the disease killed millions in six weeks in September and October. Unlike the war, the disease was not over there. Influenza was here. The American civilian population suffered the highest number of deaths due to the influenza of anywhere in the world.

An army emergency hosital
An army emergency hosital | Source

The Great Influenza

The facts from this article were researched in The Great Influenza, The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Written by John M. Barry. Published by Penguin Books, 2004, 2005.

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