I became aware of the suffering and trauma of the influenza pandemic of 1918 during my teens. My grandfather described to me of how he learned of his mother’s death; he was a little boy walking down the street with his father and his siblings and overheard a man tell his father that he was sorry for his loss. Grandpa’s entire family had been in the hospital, but his Mom did not leave with them – with that stranger’s words, my grandfather knew his mother was gone.
The “Spanish Influenza,” produced a tremendous amount of fear and sadness for global humanity as the bacteria transported death so randomly around the world. After leaving Camp Funston, Kansas in the early spring of 1918, the Spanish influenza spread into Spain where it acquired its name due to its being documented by Spanish health records. A pandemic rather than an epidemic, this influenza was a “new” disease that spread rapidly around the world and killed many, especially those between 21 to 29 as well as pregnant women. In contrast, an influenza epidemic’s typical pattern of mortality has fewer deaths and strikes the very young and the elderly. A description of the ravages of the flu from doctors in London revealed the lungs were “two sacks filled with a thin, bloody, frothy fluid” and having “not only acute congestion, but diffuse hemorrhaging, military abscesses, croupous pneumonia, passive edema, sometimes purulent bronchiolitis and even complete lung collapse.” Dr. Albert Lamb admitted the horrific frustration experienced by his colleagues around the world as they “had to stand by helpless except for what temporary relief we could give” as their patients died, “coughing up liquid blood.”
The United States Navy maintained the most reliable American medical records and reported that approximately 40% of its personnel were ill with the flu during the winter months of 1918.As the flu occurred during WWI and the death rate from the flu in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) was 32 percent overall, with 80 percent in some groups, General John Pershing understood why the government decided to halt the draft in 1918. Dr. Victor Vaughan, acting Surgeon General of the Army observed that city boys appeared to have more resistance to the flu than did country boys and that “infection, like war, kills the young vigorous, robust adults.”
Sadly, the magnification of a microscope at that time was too low to see a virus, so efforts at containment and cure were virtually futile. Also, WWI drew away many doctors to the war, so the civilian population struggled to access any medical care at all. Thus, a variety of home remedies such as “Foley’s Honey and Tar for coughs,” “mustard spread on their chests or sacks of camphor around their necks” were suggestions for treatment. Conflicting cures such as taking aspirin or not taking aspirin, drinking castor oil or refusing castor oil, wearing a veil or not wearing a veil, stopping the circulation of library books, wearing clean pajamas or not shaking hands were just some of the suggested ways to avoid or cure the flu. Another popular treatment was the open-air treatment which was used at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York. Children were placed in beds on the roof of the building, given “hot-water bottles” and provided “screens shielding from the northwest wind” with the hopes that the fresh air would help them survive. Other medical personnel in Boston thought this treatment was barbaric and cruel. Despite this attitude in Boston, the Medfield State Hospital in Massachusetts incorporated this treatment into their attempts to stop the deadly spread of the influenza within their crowded conditions. To add to the general fear of the disease, some patients experienced such hypothermia as a side effect of slow heart rate and respirations from the flu, that accidental burials of the living occurred.
Attempts to stop the spread of the disease led Americans to cancel national and local events. In October of 1918, the military draft was cancelled, and most military camps quarantined. Theatres and saloons were closed, while athletic events were suspended. Burying the dead required mass graves as there was little manpower to dig graves, perform ceremonies or build coffins. Even churches in Boston closed on September 22nd. School attendance around the country dropped and many schools closed in the hopes of stopping the spread of disease. Suspicions that German war tactics included diseases became popular. Beliefs that Bayer aspirin, a German creation, was “poisoning its customers with flu germs” and slogans demonstrating the suspicions held by Americans “of those germ-uns” elicited further fear. Some communities suspended Liberty Loan drives since visiting people door-to-door collecting money also meant potentially acquiring the flu.
The largest impact of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 was the change in public health philosophy. After the devastation, the American government realized the importance of reporting incidents of death and disease in a reliable manner. The public also learned the necessity of fighting the war against poverty and chronic/contagious diseases. Arizona devised a revolutionary sanitary code that gained acceptance and spread throughout the United States. This plan included mandatory methods for the cleansing of dishes in public facilities, clean laundry for guests and sterile toilets with inspections by the health department at any time. Americans ushered in a “cleanliness craze” in their homes during the 1920s and leading scientists around the world realized the importance of tracking contagious diseases. Budgets appropriated money for public health nurses and towns such as Medfield, Massachusetts delivered programs on contagious diseases. Attempts to vaccinate people against the flu were believed to have been met with a “slightly smaller death rate” yet, medicine was just not advanced enough to make a serious impact on the outcome of the disease.
The human destruction of the Influenza Pandemic is generally forgotten in history, yet its impact on communities, World War I, the civilian war effort and the fabric of societies around the world was profound. Why the flu remains virtually “forgotten” in history may be due to the tremendous fear and lack of control people felt as it spread from community to community. Historians suggest that these senseless and random deaths led humanity to have selective amnesia about the Spanish flu since our pathetic attempts at stopping it failed. The next time a new disease appears, will we be any better prepared to deal with controlling the contagion? In respect of the intense suffering and death of family members in earlier generations, we must remember the significant impact of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 on the world and mark its 100th anniversary.
A. A. Hoehling, The Great Epidemic: When the Spanish Influenza Struck(Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1961), 21.; Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 8.
Crosby, 49; Hoehling, 64, 40.
Milford News, October 3 & 5, 1918, np.; Jane Brox
Richard Collier, The Plague of the Spanish Lady: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919(New York: Atheneum, 1974), 77-78.; Medfield State Hospitalrecords 1918, 10.
Collier, 221, 225.
Hoehling 33 and 94; Jack Fincher, “America’s Deadly Rendezvous with the ‘Spanish Lady,’” Smithsonian 19 January 1989, 142; Collier, 144
Crosby, 47, 216.
Crosby, 266, 288-289, 312.; Fincher, 139,