The common name for the 1918 influenza is Spanish Flu. However, this influenza did not originate in Spain. The name caught on because Spain was neutral during WWI and able to report on the pandemic without news blackouts.
A British soldier in a trench on the Western Front during World War I, 1914-1918
A colorized image of the 1918 influenza virus
Credit: C. Goldsmith - Public Health Image Library #11098
The United States enters WWI in 1917 and establishes 32 large camps to house and train drafted soldiers. In March the following year, soldiers at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas become ill with a flu-like illness. There is news that this illness is spreading around the world. It is not until April that influenza is mentioned as the cause of 18 severe cases and three deaths in Haskell, Kansas.
The 1918 influenza pandemic is the most severe pandemic in recent history—infecting 500 million people and killing about 50 million by the time it loosened its grip on humanity. In the United States, 670,000 people died of the disease. It is unknown where this influenza came from. 100 years later scientists are still unsure, but it is believed the disease came to humans from birds.
1918 influenza patients in an emergency hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas
By May 1918, hundreds of thousands of United States soldiers are traveling across the Atlantic Ocean each month to fight in WWI.
In September, influenza peaks in the United States—thousands are dying from war and disease. People succumbing to this disease die within hours or days of developing symptoms. Their skin turns blue and their lungs fill with fluid, causing them to suffocate—they drown on land. Like a typical flu, this influenza was spreading through coughing, sneezing, and breathing.
Lillian E. Spears and Marion H. Brown, U.S. Army nurses, at Camp Sherman during WWI
Black patients with the 1918 influenza in a segregated medical ward
Credit: Public Domain
In October 1918, around 195,000 people in the United States died from the disease. Black people in the United States had higher fatality rates than White people due to a refusal to diagnose, treat, and aid them and their communities.
During the pandemic, there was a shortage of nurses to aid the increasing number of sick and dying. Despite this, many Black nurses were rejected and turned away from jobs because of racism.
Influenza was ravaging the United States not only during WWI, but also during the Great Migration. Black people were travelling to northern states, away from violent racism in the south. However, northern states are not free of racism. Black people, wrongfully seen as carriers of the influenza by White people, were sent to segregated medical wards that allowed for the further spread of disease and death.
A Newspaper clip from Portland, Oregon, January 1919: "Wear a Mask"
People in the United States were being ordered to wear masks and to close schools, theaters, and businesses. With no vaccine or treatment for the disease, local officials were improvising plans to protect communities. With pressure to appear patriotic and censored media downplaying the spread and severity of the disease, many made disastrous decisions.
Officials in Philadelphia insisted that the growing number of deaths was not the Spanish Flu, but a seasonal flu.
The city went ahead with plans to host the Liberty Loans Parade on September 28, 1918, to raise money to support Allied troops. The parade attracted thousands of people and within 10 days 200,000 people became sick and over 1,000 died. Only then did the city close buildings and public functions.
But it was too late. By March 1919, over 15,000 people in Philadelphia were killed by the disease and patriotism.
A photo of the Philadelphia parade with gathering people
On November 11, 1918, WWI came to an end. Another wave of the influenza gripped the world as hundreds more died when soldiers and nurses came home.
In the summer of 1919 the influenza pandemic faded away.