Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting influenza activity during the week of January 6 -12, 2013 as “elevated” in all ten Health and Human Services (HHS) Regions across the U.S.  -- and with the CDC also stating that the proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza is “above the epidemic threshold” -- it might be instructive to briefly compare the current epidemic to the 1918 so-called “Spanish Flu” * that some authorities have referred to as “the deadliest plague in history.”  If in your genealogy research you have come across ancestor and relative deaths in 1918 that are not known to be combat-related, or explicitly explained as due to other causes, the Great Influenza of 1918 could well be the cause.

 At the halfway point of the current flu season there have been a total of 29 pediatric deaths reported nationwide since September 30, 2012.  This nearly matches the total of 34 pediatric deaths for the entire flu season in 2011 – 2012.  The total of all deaths during a given flu season (adult and pediatric) is usually not tallied until the end of the season, but deaths in the U.S. from influenza-related causes have ranged from 3,000 to 49,000 during the last quarter-century.

Patients ill with the flu at Camp Funston, Kansas 1918.
Nothing in the annals of influenza or other diseases and plagues can compare to what the U.S. and the world experienced in 1918.  In the U.S., the flu arrived in Kansas in January 1918 and spread through late spring in a “first wave” that caused severe sickness and deaths in a typical pattern and particularly among the elderly and the infirm – younger, healthy people usually recovered.  But in the “second wave” starting in August 1918, the flu returned in a mutated, lethal form that now attacked and killed the young and the healthy with a vengeance.   Estimates are that deaths worldwide in the first twenty-five weeks of the pandemic reached as many as 25 million.  Older estimates offered total deaths at the end of the pandemic at 40 – 50 million people, but more modern calculations say that as many as 50 – 100 million people were killed by the 1918 influenza!  Epidemiologists now believe that there were 675,000 flu deaths in the U.S. in 1918 -- and that was out of a U.S. population of 105 million.  The dust jacket of the 2004 book The Great Influenza by John M. Barry captures the horror and the numbers succinctly:

In the winter of 1918, the coldest the American Midwest had ever endured, history’s most lethal influenza virus was born.  Over the next year it flourished, killing as many as 100 million people.  It killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years, more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century.  There were many echoes of the Middle Ages in 1918: victims turned blue-black and priests in some of the world’s most modern cities drove horse-drawn carts down the streets, calling upon people to bring out their dead.

In early April 1918, my maternal grandfather, Everett S. Carpenter, was posted at Watervliet Arsenal about 8 miles north of Albany, New York.  On April 1, 1918, he wrote home to his mother in Lonsdale (Cumberland), Rhode Island to inform her that he had been hospitalized.  He explained that he was the 56th of a total of 360 men to give in to what was then being euphemistically called ‘the grippe.”  He had experienced a fever of 103 degrees for at least two days.  The postcard, which I now possess, is shown below.  It is eerie proof that my grandfather had just survived the first wave of the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic!  

*  The 1918 influenza pandemic became known as the “Spanish Flu” because Spain was neutral during WWI.  In the warring countries, the war censors monitored the press and newspaper reports so that negative news that might affect morale or inform the enemy about manpower weakness was banned from publication.  In Spain, the press was free to report on the advance of the disease and reporting increased when King Alphonse XIII became very ill from the flu.  The disease that had previously been often referred to as “the grippe” when it was rarely mentioned in warring Europe or the U.S., soon became known as the “Spanish Flu” or the “Spanish Influenza.”  There is no evidence that the deadly 1918 influenza originated in Spain.
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For additional reading on the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918:

John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York, New York: Viking, The Penguin Group, 2004).

Gina Kolata, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

The image of Camp Funston, Kansas 1918 can be found here.  The image is in the public domain in the U.S. because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923.   
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. An amazingly awful epidemic - and just after many families lost a son to WW1, the flu killed more people. Thanks for the great detailed post - and how wonderful to see that postcard from the time talking about the fever.

  2. Celia:

    The Great Influenza of 1918 has long been an interest of mine. When I was given many items of my Carpenter family history a few years ago, I slowly worked my way through the letters, postcards, photos, etc. I recall quite clearly how when I finally read my grandfather's postcard to his mother, I realized instantly what it was saying --even though at the time it was written he and his mother had no idea what he has just survived and what was about to happen in less than five months!

    Thank you again for being one of my most frequent readers and commenters! :-)

  3. Very interesting. Not so long ago and yet hard for us to even imagine.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  4. Teresa:

    Thank you for your kind comment! I had a look at YOUR blog. Very nice!

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