Other Travelers Part 10 – Tracing the 1918 Flu Epidemic
(Originally posted) 02Apr2018
(Part of an On-going Series – “Other Travelers”)
by Vicki Ruthe Hahn – SGS Stateline Genealogy Sorter
(Re-issued 05Mar2020 : I have seen worldwide fatality rates of 3 – 5% for the 1918 Spanish Influenza (mostly young adults). This may help us get perspective on the current Covid-19 Corona virus with what I hear so far are Worldwide death rates of 2 -3% (mostly elderly people). The rate may actually be lower as many cases were not reported in China at the beginning. “The death rate from seasonal flu is typically around 0.1% in the U.S.” – Read an additional article from Lifescience.com about Covid-19 compared to flu here.)
Have you gotten the flu this season?
Not the 24 hour stomach flu (which is bad enough), but the upper respiratory Influenza A or B? Flu has hit this year especially hard, killing several children. But it is nothing close to the amount of deaths in the Pandemic of 1918.
Perhaps your ancestors were affected by that epidemic – one hundred years ago this year? Whole families were wiped out.
Let’s get some insight:
From Standford Children’s Health:
“What are the different types of influenza?
Influenza viruses are divided into three types designated as A, B, and C:
- Influenza types A and B are responsible for epidemics of respiratory illness that occur almost every winter and often lead to increased rates of hospitalization and death. Public health efforts to control the impact of influenza focus on types A and B. One of the reasons the flu remains a problem is because the viruses actually change their structure regularly. This means that people are exposed to new types of the virus each year.
- Influenza type C usually causes either a very mild respiratory illness or no symptoms at all. It does not cause epidemics and does not have the severe public health impact that influenza types A and B do….
- A person infected with an influenza virus develops antibodies against that virus.
- The virus changes.
- The “older” antibodies no longer recognizes the “newer” virus when the next flu season comes around.
- The person becomes infected again.
The older antibodies can, however, give some protection against getting the flu again. Currently, three different influenza viruses circulate worldwide: two type A viruses and one type B virus. Vaccines given each year to protect against the flu contain the influenza virus strain from each type that is expected to cause the flu that year.
What causes influenza?
An influenza virus is generally passed from person to person through the air. .. with infected person who sneezes or coughs. The virus can also live for a short time on objects …can get the flu virus by touching something that has been handled by someone infected with the virus and then touching his or her own mouth, nose, or eyes.
People are generally the most contagious with the flu 24 hours before they start having symptoms (emphasis mine) and during the time they have the most symptoms. That’s why it is hard to prevent the spread of the flu, especially among children, because they do not always know they are sick while they are still spreading the disease. The risk of infecting others usually stops around the seventh day of the infection.”
Most entertainments, churches, social clubs, libraries, movie houses, etc. were eventually shut down. But they tried wearing masks for awhile!
Milkmen(?) braving the Flu to deliver milk to stores, and to people’s homes
The Flu Epidemic rapidly made many children orphans, dependent on the care of others.
Many families died of neglect or starvation, remaining isolated in their homes, afraid to come out for supplies or medical attention. Some neighbors were afraid to enter the homes of those who were sick. So many medical doctors were in the War, ill, or overwhelmed. anyone with medical training was asked to help, and some communities recruited volunteers to care for the sick.
From Standford University, by Molly Billings, June, 1997 modified RDS February, 2005:
“The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than the Great War, known today as World War I (WWI) … It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe” the influenza of 1918-1919 was a global disaster…
In the two years that this scourge ravaged the earth, a fifth of the world’s population was infected. The flu was most deadly for people ages 20 to 40. This pattern of morbidity was unusual for influenza which is usually a killer of the elderly and young children. It infected 28% of all Americans (Tice).
An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy (Deseret News). An estimated 43,000 servicemen mobilized for WWI died of influenza (Crosby). 1918 would go down as unforgettable year of suffering and death and yet of peace…
The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years. (Emphasis mine.)…
In 1918 children would skip rope to the rhyme (Crawford):
History is reflected in children’s games, and in songs.
(“Ring-around-the Rosie” is NOT from the time of the Black Plaque!)
The mandatory gauze masks were not always very effective. There is the story of 4 women who wore masks while playing cards one evening. By the next morning three of them were dead from Influenza.
In an effort to boost the War effort, President Woodrow Wilson (and others) initially tried to ignore the pandemic, and suppress news about it. How depressing that so many of those who survived the war, ended up dying of influenza. Whole shiploads of military men were affected, some never making it to serve in the War.
The cause of most of the deaths in this pandemic was the secondary pneumonia. There were no antibiotics. Influenza frequently has secondary infections – strep throat, ear infections, Pink Eye, etc. But this time it was more than that. (see explanation below.)
Be alert if you see several people in your ancestor’s family die suddenly, and within a few days of each other, especially if between September 1918 and about June 1919. A death certificate may not mention flu/influenza, but pneumonia, etc. as cause of death. Or there might not have been a police officer/medical person/undertaker/county recorder available to make any registration. (see explanation below.) Some members of the family may have been buried in a mass grave with no records.
“The Flu Strikes Far and Wide
The first wave of the 1918 pandemic occurred in the spring and was generally mild. The sick …experienced … typical flu symptoms….
However, a second, highly contagious wave of influenza appeared with a vengeance in the fall of that same year. Victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate….
Despite the fact that the 1918 flu wasn’t isolated to one place, it became known around the world as the Spanish flu, as Spain was hit hard by the disease and was not subject to the wartime news blackouts that affected other European countries. (Even Spain’s king, Alfonso XIII, reportedly contracted the flu.)
One unusual aspect of the 1918 flu was that it struck down many previously healthy, young people—a group normally resistant to this type of infectious illness—including a number of World War I servicemen…. Forty percent of the U.S. Navy was hit with the flu, while 36 percent of the Army became ill, and troops moving around the world in crowded ships and trains helped to spread the killer virus.
Although the death toll attributed to the Spanish flu is often estimated at 20 million to 50 million victims worldwide, other estimates run as high as 100 million victims. The exact numbers are impossible to know due to a lack of medical record-keeping in many places.
…Even President Woodrow Wilson reportedly contracted the flu in early 1919 while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.
Fighting the Spanish Flu
When the 1918 flu hit, doctors and scientists were unsure what caused it or how to treat it. Unlike today, there were no effective vaccines or antivirals, drugs that treat the flu. (The first licensed flu vaccine appeared in America in the 1940s….)
Complicating matters was the fact that World War I had left parts of America with a shortage of physicians and other health workers. And of the available medical personnel in the U.S., many came down with the flu themselves.
Additionally, hospitals in some areas were so overloaded with flu patients that schools, private homes and other buildings had to be converted into makeshift hospitals, some of which were staffed by medical students.
Officials in some communities imposed quarantines, ordered citizens to wear masks and shut down public places, including schools, churches and theaters. People were advised to avoid shaking hands and to stay indoors, libraries put a halt on lending books and regulations were passed banning spitting… the Sanitary Code.”
The Flu Takes Heavy Toll on Society
The flu took a heavy human toll, wiping out entire families and leaving countless widows and orphans in its wake. Funeral parlors were overwhelmed and bodies piled up. Many people had to dig graves for their own family members.
The flu was also detrimental to the economy. In the United States, businesses were forced to shut down because so many employees were sick. Basic services such as mail delivery and garbage collection were hindered due to flu-stricken workers.
In some places there weren’t enough farm workers to harvest crops. Even state and local health departments closed for business, hampering efforts to chronicle the spread of the 1918 flu and provide the public with answers about it.
Spanish Flu Pandemic Ends
By the summer of 1919, the flu pandemic came to an end, as those that were infected either died or developed immunity.
Almost 90 years later, in 2008, researchers announced they’d discovered what made the 1918 flu so deadly: A group of three genes enabled the virus to weaken a victim’s bronchial tubes and lungs and clear the way for bacterial pneumonia.
Since 1918, there have been several other influenza pandemics, although none as deadly.”
The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic was world wide:
The ultimate “other Travelers” in this story are the viruses and bacteria that exploded throughout the world for those 15 months 1918 – 1919.
PBS has a very good “American Experience” documentary of the topic
Aired January 2, 2018
The American military in World War I and the influenza pandemic were closely connected. Influenza spread in The crowded conditions of military camps in the United States and in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe. The virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic military transit ships. September – November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened many in the military at the height of the American military involvement in the war. This affected the war.
INFLUENZA IN THE CAMPS
(read the entire article by clicking the links above.)
“…the virus traveled west and south, arriving at Camp Grant, Illinois, on Saturday, September 21, 1918, with 70 hospital admissions. “So sudden and appalling was the visitation that it required the greatest energy and cooperation of every officer, every man, and every nurse to meet the emergency,” wrote one observer.4 (p. 749) Hospital admissions rose to 194, then 370, then 492, to a high of 788 admissions on September 29. Hospital officials summoned all officers on leave, converted barracks to hospital wards, and by “extreme effort” expanded the hospital capacity from “10 occupied beds to a capacity of 4,102 beds in six days.”4 (p.751)
Influenza still overwhelmed every department. The hospital laboratory resorted to local civilian facilities to perform specimen tests. Camp ophthalmologists saw patients with conjunctivitis, an influenza complication, and ear, nose, and throat specialists saw those with other dangerous secondary infections. As individuals became seriously ill, camp officials sent out “danger” or “death” telegrams to families and loved ones, but soon they received so many return calls, telegrams, and visitors, they had to set up a separate hospital tent as an information bureau. Medical personnel were not immune. Eleven of the 81 medical officers fell ill, and three civilian and three Army nurses died. The epidemic even caused the Medical Department to drop its prohibition on black nurses so that Camp Grant called African American nurses to care for patients. The women had to wait, however, until separate, segregated accommodations could be constructed.”
As the largest repository of American World War I records, the National Archives invites you to browse the wealth of records and information documenting the U.S. experience in this conflict, including photographs, documents, audiovisual recordings, educational resources, articles, blog posts, lectures, and events.
Veteran’s Service Records: