Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Most Lethal Plague in History -- The Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Camp Funston, Kansas makeshift hospital for men with influenza (1918)

As Geneabloggers and others have noted, today is regarded as the anniversary of the outbreak of the so-called "Spanish Influenza" ninety-six years ago.  The deadly influenza -- or "grippe" as it was first called -- is generally thought to have started with a little over 100 men reporting sick at Fort Riley, Kansas on this date in 1918.

This particular epidemic has always horrified and fascinated me and I have written about it previously here at The Prism. [See, http://filiopietismprism.blogspot.com/search/label/Influenza] It has often been referred to [erroneously] as the "Spanish Influenza" not because the flu originated in Spain or even because Spain was particularly hard hit by the disease. Rather, Spain was a neutral country during WWI and as such did not have war censors who carefully guarded against the public release of any information that could affect morale or, more importantly, inform the enemy about manpower weaknesses.  The Allied and Central Power nations therefore had tight control over any discussion of the epidemic that was soon raging world-wide and affecting especially the young and healthy who usually were the most resistant to such disease. Spain, as a non-warring country, reported the flu outbreak and alarming deaths in newspapers and other media -- particularly after the Spanish monarch, Alphonse XIII was stricken by the influenza.

Modern estimates are that the Great Influenza of 1918 killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people world-wide before the pandemic ended. Most people do not realize that it arrived and spread in two waves -- a strong first wave in the spring of 1918 that caused severe illness with high fevers, and a lethal second wave that began in August 1918 and was capable of suddenly infecting and killing a young healthy man within 24 - 36 hours. 

As I wrote in my first post about this deadly epidemic, my maternal grandfather, Everett S. Carpenter, contracted and survived the first wave of the 1918 influenza while stationed at Watervliet Arsenal in upstate New York in March-April, 1918. Below is a re-post of the postcard he sent to his mother when he recovered from "the grippe" that provides the proof of his survival. Many, many Americans  have ancestors and relatives (some 675,000) who were not so lucky!

I highly recommend two books for those with an interest in learning more about the deadliest plague in history.

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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 the makeshift hospital at 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. 

Photographs of the April 1, 1918 postcard from Everett S. Carpenter to his mother and of the book dust jackets from the personal collection of the author. 
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Copyright 2014, John D. Tew
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  1. A completely awful pandemic, wasn't it! My grandparents were all new immigrants in this corner of the world (Vancouver BC) about 1914, with lots of children - not a word was ever spoken about the flu. I'm going to do more research on this - it definitely hit here, as I found some comments about schools closing, for example. Thanks for posting this, and the books as well.
    As a mother, I loved the postcard from her son - such a reassuring note to receive!

  2. John,

    Such a scary and terrible illness!

    It's wonderful that you have Everett's sweet postcard to his mother.

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2014/03/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-march-14.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  3. People entering Queensland during the influenza epidemic were quarantined at the border. Family historians should check the online index to Wallangarra quarantine admission registers.