On March 4, 1918, at a military training facility in Kansas, known as Fort Riley, Private Albert Gitchell woke up feeling extremely ill. Gitchell had an extremely high fever, sore throat, and said that his body “ached all over.” When he went to the nurses’ station on base, his temperature ended up being 103.
Shortly after Gitchell’s arrival, Corporal Lee Drake also came into the nurses’ station with the same symptoms. Followed by Sargent Adolf Hurvey, and then the line continued. With men registering temperatures of 103-104 as many as 500 men ended up in the infirmary that week. Within a month, the Flu seemed to have passed as the number of patients began to decline.
Similar outbreaks were being reported at military bases nationwide with almost identical patterns of the outbreak to decline, at all of the bases that reported on outbreaks. After recovery, most of these soldiers were sent off to Europe to fight in World War I.
So with knowing patient zero was stationed in Kansas, why was the Flu known as the Spanish Flu and not the Kansas flu?
Many researchers have dedicated their expertise to this Flu finding the origin in an attempt to pinpoint the origin of the outbreak. In 1916-1917 hundreds of thousands of soldiers passed through a specific hospital camp in France. During this influx of patients, military pathologists reported a flu-like disease that had a high mortality rate.
One theory is that the disease spread from the poultry at the camp into the pigs, then into the humans. Other researchers think it could have originated in Austria, China, East Asia, or even the USA. Thinking that it was imported to Europe as opposed to originating in Europe.
The reason we call it the Spanish Flu is more elementary than one would think. It was merely because Spain’s media wasn’t heavily censored during World War I, unlike most countries. Spain was neutral in the war, so any news out of there was viewed as “unbiased.” The newspapers of Spain made it look like the country affected the most by the Flu, which wasn’t even remotely true. The name stuck though, and the Flu was known from then on as “The Spanish Flu.”
Similar to the coronavirus, the Spanish Flu spread fast. It is estimated that around 27% of the world’s population (1.8B-1.9B at the time) got infected by the Flu. It is difficult to get accurate numbers, and the estimates vary widely, but it is thought to have killed anywhere from 50 million up to 100 million people. That total is greater than the number of soldiers that lost their lives during world war one.
Around 500,000 US citizens lost their lives to this Flu, interestingly enough, impacting those ages 20-40 the most. For a statistical comparison in 1917, the life expectancy was 51 years; in 1918, it had tumbled all the way down to 39 years.
The theory as to why the virus seemed to claim the lives of more citizens that should have had the strongest immune systems, is that a similar flu pandemic occurred a couple of decades earlier that was not as deadly as the Spanish Flu. The hypothesis is that the survivors of that particular pandemic may have developed an immunity that left their bodies immune systems more prepared to deal with it.
Almost mirroring the coronavirus, the Spanish Flu was a global pandemic.
The death toll to certain countries was staggering.
- India: 17 million
- Dutch East Indies: 1.5 million
- Japan: 390,000
- Great Britain: 250,000
- France: 400,000
- Iran: 902,400 – 2,431,000
Small rural areas were the greatest affected by the deadly virus. As an example, in German Somoa, 90% of the population were infected by the Spanish Flu. The Flu claimed the lives of 30% of the adult males that were infected, 22% of the adult woman, and 10% of the children that were infected. There were some small remote islands that were not impacted by the Flu at all and had zero cases. As an example, the Islands of Fiji, some islands throughout South America, and even parts of Alaska reportedly had no cases of the Spanish Flu and were not impacted by the pandemic.
How did the Spanish Flu spread so fast?
The main source of contamination was actually infected soldiers living in close quarters, spreading the highly infectious disease to hundreds of soldiers at a time within their living quarters. Those same infected soldiers were also traveling across countries fighting a war. It is believed to have spread so quickly due to wartime troop movements. The Flu was traveling with these soldiers across borders. Once the Flu had started in an area, it was almost impossible to stop.
Why couldn’t the Spanish Flu be contained?
Reports would be made by field hospitals that young, healthy people would come down with a fever and then be dead within 24 hours. In most cases, a patient would come in with a fever that would be followed by nasal hemorrhaging and pneumonia. The patient’s lungs would then fill with fluid causing them to literally drown in that fluid. Doctors during this period were not aware of what was happening, and most thought that only chemical warfare could cause the kind of damage to the lungs that the Spanish Flu did.
When soldiers would go back home, they would unknowingly spread the virus throughout their town. Social distancing wasn’t a thing, and quarantine wasn’t a practice in most cases, either. So the rapid spread of this deadly virus would happen, and due to the lack of knowledge and testing at the time, there was no way to protect others. If a town had a case of the Spanish Flu, most likely, it was already too late.
To make matters even worse, the media of the U.S., the U.K., and France did not report on the Flu as it did not look good for the war effort.
We can learn a lot from what countries did wrong during the Spanish flu outbreak. One thing we have a leg up on is isolation and quarantine. Even though countries knew they should isolate the infected to prevent them from having contact with the healthy, they just couldn’t due to the war. There is no way, for example, a munitions factory to shut down during a global war conflict.
People in the USA were handling things differently than most. Some businesses closed and hung signs warning of the spread of this deadly influenza. In Australia and Japan, people were photographed in the streets wearing facemasks. You can even go as far as to find news reports of Boy Scouts handing out leaflets to people that they had seen spitting on the streets of New York City. The leaflets read, “You are in violation of the Sanitary Code.”
The citizens of the USA were possibly so proactive to self-police due to the extreme shortage of nurses within the United States. With there being no drugs to combat the disease, nurses would bathe patients while providing them with aspirin, whiskey, cough syrups, clean bedding, and hot soup.
The United States also sent 9,000 caucasian nurses to Europe to assist the sick soldiers while thousands more were sent to U.S. military camps. There were African American nurses that were willing and ready to help with these efforts due to segregation and racism; they were not utilized to fight this Flu.
After the war, the Flu was the new fight. The American Medical Association referred to the Spanish Flu as “the greatest enemy of them all.”
Towards the tail end of 1918, the cases just kept dropping until it seemed as if the Spanish flu pandemic was essentially over. Although there are a wide variety of theories as to why this could have happened, the likely reason is that the strain of the disease mutated into something much less lethal. It wasn’t until halfway through 1919 that it was said that the pandemic of the Spanish Flu was officially over.