1918 Spanish Flu
Posted on January 16, 2015
It is estimated that between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. It was a devastating global event that reminds us that a pandemic can happen at any time and change life as we know it forever.
An Army private at Fort Riley, Kansas reports to the camp hospital complaining of fever, sore throat, and headache. Before the day is over, over 100 soldiers fall sick.
Public health officials in Philadelphia issue a warning about what they call the “Spanish influenza”.
Sailors stationed aboard the Receiving Ship at Commonwealth Pier in Boston begin reporting to the sick bay with cold symptoms.
At least 60 sailors aboard the Receiving Ship fall sick.
Dr. Victor Vaughn, acting Surgeon General of the Army, receives urgent orders to proceed to Camp Devens near Boston. Once there, what Vaughn sees stuns him: “I saw hundreds of young stalwart men in uniform coming into the wards of the hospital. Every bed was full, yet others crowded in. The faces wore a bluish cast; a cough brought up the blood-stained sputum. In the morning, the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cordwood.” That day, 63 men die of influenza.
The Massachusetts Department of Health informs local newspapers that they are dealing with an epidemic. A doctor with the Massachusetts State Health Department says, “unless precautions are taken the disease in all probability will spread to the civilian population of the city.”
Edward Wagner, newly transplanted from Chicago, falls ill with the flu. This flies in the face of San Francisco public health officials who had played down the threat of the flu to the public.
200,000 gather for a 4th Liberty Loan Drive in Philadelphia. Days after the parade, 635 new cases of influenza were reported. Within days, the city will be forced to admit that epidemic conditions exist. Churches, schools, and theaters are ordered closed, along with all other places of “public amusement.”
By the point, the death toll in Boston is 202. The Liberty Bond parades are cancelled as well as all sporting events. The stock market goes on half-days.
The epidemic reaches Seattle, Washington, with 700 cases and one death at the University of Washington Naval Training Station.
Philadelphia records 289 influenza-related deaths in a single day.
New Mexico, which had remained largely untouched by the influenza, reports its first case.
Santa Fe, New Mexico reports its first flu-related death.
In a single day, 851 New Yorkers die. The death rate in Philly for the period of a single week is 700 times the average. The Chicago crime rate drops 43 percent.
In Philadelphia, Dr. C.Y. White announces he has developed a preventative vaccine. More than 10,000 complete series of inoculations are sent to the Philadelphia Board of Health.
Six-ply gauze masks become mandatory in Seattle.
Six-ply gauze masks become mandatory in the entire state of Washington.
Because of the Influenza Pandemic that grips the nation, most Halloween celebrations are cancelled due to quarantines. One Illinois paper reports: “The ghost parties, masquerades and dances which have always been so popular at this time of the year, are as scarce as the corn and eggs, not because of Mr. Hoover, but because of Mr. Influenza. Many parties which have been planned for Friday and Saturday night have been postponed as the quarantine will not be lifted before next Monday. But not all of the Halloween spirit has been killed by the influenza. Crowds of boys and girls have been using ticktacks on the windows, tearing down gates and and beating the porches with planks , for the last three nights, and they are all prepared to be out tonight, so be not surprised if you hear mysterious noise tonight.”
October 1918 ends up being the deadliest month in the history of the United States, with 195,000 Americans succumbing to the influenza.
The News of the World prints some suggested flu precautions: “Wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply; do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work; eat plenty of porridge.”
Armistice is announced and World War I comes to an end. Though much of the joy is weighed down by the epidemic, people around the world venture out into the streets for the first time in order to celebrate. Many go out without their masks for the first time, leading to a surge in influenza cases in many cities for weeks after the Armistice.
By this date, 5,000 have died in New Mexico.
Celebrating the end of World War I, 30,000 San Franciscans take to the streets to celebrate. There is much dancing and singing. Everybody wears a face mask.
Sirens sound in San Francisco announcing that it is safe for everyone to remove their face masks.
5,000 new cases of influenza are reported in San Francisco.
Schools reopen in Seattle.
This is the first month that no influenza deaths are reported in Seattle.
It is estimated that 21.5 million people died during the 1918 epidemic.
Revising the 1927 estimate that 21.5 million people died during the 1918 epidemic, researches recalculate the numbers at 30 million.
Using lung tissue taken 79 years earlier during the autopsy of a U.S. Army private who died of the 1918 flu, scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology analyze the 1918 virus and conclude that it is a unique virus but is related to the “swine flu.” According to one researcher: “The hemagglutinin gene matches closest to swine influenza viruses, showing that this virus came into humans from pigs.” (Science, March 21, 1997)
The Bulletin of the History of Medicine reports that the estimate of the numbers dead from the 1918 epidemic has again been revised. The newest estimate is that between 50 million and 100 million died.
Researchers working separately at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California and at Britain’s Medical Research Council discover that the 1918 virus may have jumped directly from birds to humans rather than going from birds to pigs and then infecting humans. They say it explains why the 1918 strain was so deadly, since human immune systems aren’t prepared for viruses coming directly from birds.
Using a technique called reverse genetics, scientists at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology recreate the 1918 virus. They recovered the genome information from a flu victim who had been buried in Alaskan permafrost since 1918.