The Morbidly Fascinating Page

On this month's Morbidly Fascinating Page:

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918--History's forgotten tragedy


The Body Farm
The First Plastic Surgery
Tombstone Symbols
Weird Photos


Why was this flu ignored by history?

For the first 50 years after the Spanish flu swept around the globe, killing about 50-100 million people, no one – least of all historians – gave it much thought, concentrating instead on the far more compelling story of the Great War. Indeed, in 1924 the Encyclopedia Britannica didn't even mention the  in its review of the "most eventful years" of the 20th century.

This neglect of the "Spanish influenza" extended to the public sphere, hence the marked absence of memorials to the nurses and civilians, most of them young adults, who perished in the three waves of infection.

Why this should have been the case puzzled commentators at the time. "Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the face of the world … [and] never, perhaps, has a plague been more stoically accepted," commented The Times in December 1918, at the height of the deadly second wave of the pandemic.

One obvious reason for the silence about the flu was the way that the pandemic was overshadowed by World War I. People were told to focus on their patriotic duty for the war effort.

But perhaps the most important reason is that, unlike the soldiers who gave their lives for king and country, the flu dead did not readily lend themselves to narratives of nationalism and sacrifice. Instead, they became the forgotten fallen. There was pride taken in those that died in battle, and shame for those that died of sickness as civilians.


Still, it was the war that helped spread it across the globe. The war fostered influenza in the crowded conditions of military camps in the United States and in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe. The virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic, and at the height of the American military involvement in the war, September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel.




Many American cities passed laws that citizens were required to wear masks while out in public. Members of the board of health at first advocated the arrest of any person appearing without a mask. This afterwards changed to a request that the police “send home” anyone violating this rule. Members of the board say they were advised that this action may legally be taken without special ordinance enacted by the common council.


ABOVE--Public funerals were forbiddren in many states. Instead, mass graves were dug. And this was in America.


Schools were closed. Church services were banned. The federal government limited its hours of operation. People were dying — some who took ill in the morning were dead by night.

A shocking chart is below.


What was the Spanish Flu?

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet's population—and killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans.

Did it originate in Spain?

In reality, this flu likely originated in Kansas, USA. The first cases of the outbreak were recorded in Haskell County, Kansas, and Fort Riley, Kansas, where young men were being hospitalized for severe flu-like symptoms.

Why was it called the Spanish Flu?

In World War I, neutral Spain was the first to report flu deaths in its newspapers, so commentators soon nicknamed the pandemic ‘Spanish flu.’

Could it happen again?

Many medical advances since 1918 have improved people's ability to survive a flu infection, including antivirals and antibiotics, ventilators and vaccinations to protect against both the flu and pneumonia, said Dr. Nicole Bouvier. She's an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

"We have good supportive care to nurse people through an acute and horrible case of flu," Bouvier said. "We're better able to get people through a critical illness than we were in 1918."

Additionally, the 1918 influenza virus -- an H1N1 strain -- seems to have been more virulent than any flu that's since gone on to cause a pandemic, Bouvier said.

In fact, the 1918 flu was so bad that it has echoed through history. Epidemiologists believe almost all animal-derived influenza cases that have occurred since were caused by strains descended from the 1918 virus.

"It certainly is possible that a flu virus could again arise in the animal reservoir that is more pathogenic than the typical flu," Bouvier said.

Modern hunt in the Norwegian Permafrost to study some Spanish Flu victims frozen in time

1995 -- Over the mass grave a tent with a special air lock has been stretched and inflated. The tent is for privacy in this somber enterprise and protection against letting anything possibly dangerous escape into the outside air. Inside, the diggers, with medical scientists at their side, will go about their business of opening the resting place of seven young men who were buried here 80 years ago.

This is a critical moment in one of the most ambitious efforts yet to solve an intractable medical mystery: What caused the influenza pandemic of 1918 and early 1919? Why was this particular contagion so virulent that it killed 20 million to 40 million people worldwide? The secret of one of the most lethal viruses the world has ever known may dwell in the lungs of these seven men who were its victims.

In a diary kept by the coal mining company here, Dr. Duncan found the names of the seven men, 18 to 29 years old, farmers and fishermen who had just arrived here to earn extra money at winter jobs in the mine. But they had contracted flu on the boat trip from the mainland and died in the first week of October 1918. The sight of their names on the six crosses and one headstone at the back of the cemetery moved Dr. Duncan to tears: Johan Bjerk, William Henry Richardsen, Ole Kristofferson, Magnus Gabrielson, Tormod Albrigtsen, Hans Hansen and Kristian Hansen.

Dr. Duncan impressed Norwegian authorities with the importance of the project of isolating and describing at last the unknown 1918 virus. She emphasized the safety precautions that would be taken. The authorities then obtained permissions from the families to exhume and examine six of the seven bodies (all but Mr. Kristofferson's). By the time the permissions came through, Dr. Duncan had gathered an international group of pathologists, virologists, molecular biologists, geologists and medical archeologists for the work.

A survey with ground-penetrating radar established that the bodies, side by side, were indeed in permafrost and thus should be well preserved for medical study. 

Read the entire article HERE