The news media is full of stories about the bird flu, AIDS, cancer, and other medical problems of today. With all this publicity, some of us might think that medical problems are getting worse. We might even wonder if the death rate is increasing because of modern medical problems. In fact, today's medical problems pale in comparison to what our ancestors encountered eighty-eight years ago.
The Spanish flu of 1918 killed more people than any other infectious disease in recorded history: at least 25 million people. Some estimates go as high as 100 million. Even the lower number is still more than all the people who died in all the Bubonic Plague epidemics throughout the Middle Ages. AIDS killed 25 million in its first 25 years, but the Spanish flu may have killed 25 million within 25 weeks beginning in September 1918.
If your genealogy database contains records of people who died in the years 1918 or 1919, there is a good chance that they, too, died of this influenza. You might want to look at their original death records to see for yourself.
I found several people in my own database with dates of death in 1918 or 1919. However, I only have copies of death certificates for two. The certificates state that one died of pneumonia and the other died of influenza. Both probably were the result of Spanish flu.
The Spanish flu was far worse than the common cold. Normally, influenza only kills those with weakened immune systems, such as newborns, the elderly, or those already sick with other medical problems. Indeed, the Spanish flu did kill many of those people, but also millions of the young and healthy. Often it would disable its victims within hours. A minor cough early in the morning often turned to pneumonia before nightfall. The victim frequently was dead before the next daybreak.
In the days before penicillin and other modern drugs, doctors were powerless to stop Spanish flu. Aspirin would have helped, but it was a brand-new drug at the time. Bayer aspirin was just hitting the market in the U.S. at the time of the Spanish flu, but because Bayer was a German company and World War I was happening at that time, many Americans distrusted aspirin and thought that it was a form of germ warfare.
The Spanish flu was also very infectious; it managed to spread across the globe within a matter of weeks. Then suddenly, after two years of ravaging the earth, it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
Despite its nickname, the Spanish flu did not originate in Spain. Its true origins are unknown, but it is known to have been raging in several countries before it spread to Spain. There are several proposed theories about the origins of the influenza. Some believe it started in US forts and then spread to Europe as America joined the war; others think that it populated the trenches of the English and the French and eventually broke out in 1918. Regardless of where it started, eventually a fifth of the world population suffered the disease. It is estimated that 25 million to possibly 100 million people worldwide died of the disease in a two-year period. Within the U.S. alone, 28% of the population is said to have suffered from the Spanish flu, and some 500,000 to 675,000 died from it. That is more than all the combat deaths of World War I, World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined.
The Spanish flu passed throughout the world on trade routes and shipping lines. It hit Northern America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific. The First World War helped spread the disease within a very few weeks. Cleanliness was lacking among millions of combat troops deployed across Europe. We can only imagine the speed at which a virus can spread in a crowded battlefield trench. Some soldiers believed that the Spanish flu was a new form of biological warfare introduced by the Germans, the French, or the British.
The Spanish flu changed people's ways of life. Gauze masks were publicly distributed. Flu ordnances were passed to help quarantine the disease. Some towns established roadblocks to stop strangers from traveling through the community. Many theaters, dance halls, churches, and other public gathering places were shut down for over a year. The frequent funerals often were limited to 15 minutes in length. Hospitals became filled so quickly that there were not enough doctors. Medical students were forced out of school and into hospitals to act as nurses or interns. Patients were often on cots or stretchers in the hallways for lack of sufficient beds. There was a shortage of coffins. Morticians and gravediggers worked long hours.
During the 1918-19 Stanley Cup playoffs between the Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans, several Canadiens players contracted Spanish influenza, part of the worldwide epidemic. The finals were cancelled after five games. The final game was never played because Montreal players Joe Hall, Edouard Lalonde, Billy Coutu, and Jack McDonald, as well as Manager Kennedy, were hospitalized with influenza. Joe Hall died four days after the cancelled game, and the series was abandoned, remaining tied at 2-2-1. The Stanley Cup was not awarded to anyone that season.
Luckily, the Spanish flu simply vanished within eighteen months. Those exposed either died or else became immune to new infections of the same disease. It is believed the flu simply ran out of potential new victims as almost everyone in the world had already been exposed.
In recent times scientists have managed to find and reproduce strains of the Spanish flu. The virus was believed to have died out many years ago. However, virologists managed to extract living Spanish flu virus samples from frozen bodies exhumed from Arctic cemeteries. You can read more about that effort in the November 20, 1999, edition of this newsletter, available at http://eogn.com/archives/news9947.htm.
Studying the deadly flu virus is a dangerous undertaking. There was a slight risk that the disease would not remain inside the laboratory. Scientists were concerned that it might again escape into the wild and infect millions of people not yet alive in 1918 and therefore never exposed. Thankfully, this has not happened.
The studies indicate that the original strain of the 1918 Spanish flu probably came from birds. Studies now underway will try to see how the 1918 flu mutated from a bird flu to one that could pass between humans. Hopefully, these studies will find ways to create an effective vaccine before any future bird influenza destroys the world population.
The problems faced by our ancestors sometimes were worse than anything we can imagine today.
For more information, look at:
The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 http://www.stanford.edu/group/virus/uda/
Life at Camp Funston - letters written by a WWI Army trainee at Camp Funston, from where the 1918 influenza first spread http://members.cox.net/~tjohnston7/ww1hist
PBS' American Experience: Influenza, 1918 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/influenza