A mysterious, very contagious, and lethal virus that had crossed over to humans from an animal spread quickly across Europe, and then the United States, leaving mass casualties in its wake. American officials, along with some members of the press, initially downplayed the significance of the 1918 influenza pandemic, promising it would soon go away. The public was told by some officials they should go about business as usual.
As the lethality of the virus became clear, with death resulting from pneumonia-like conditions as a result of the disease, officials delayed closing institutions, then pushed to have them reopened.
Protective equipment was in short supply, doctors and nurses became ill and died, and the country’s surgeon general gave the American people a lesson on how to make cloth face masks to help stop the contagion.
Sound familiar? This pandemic, commonly referred to as the Spanish influenza, although that origin was eventually debunked, closely mirrors the world’s current fight against COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website described the 1918 pandemic as being caused “by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin.” It came from a bird.
Europe was consumed by what was then known as The Great War, now called World War I. The United States joined the fight in April 1917, taking sides with France, England, and Belgium. Russia dropped out of the Allied Forces effort after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Their chief opponents were the nations now known as Germany, Austria, and Turkey.
The Independent has examined the reporting in every issue of The New York Times, and local newspapers, like The East Hampton Star from that year.
In 1918, The Times was an advocate for the war effort and the President Woodrow Wilson administration. The war dominated its front page daily with every one topped by a banner headline proclaiming the day’s events on the battlefield. The influenza never made it to the front page once, despite the fact that the disease would go on to kill roughly 675,000 Americans, as reported by the CDC. According to the organization, “about 500 million people, or one-third of the world’s population, became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide.”
Of the 116,516 American troops who died in the war, over 63,000 of them were killed by the flu.
Molly Billings, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, wrote about the pandemic in 1997, the year she obtained her BA from Stanford University.
“The influenza virus had a profound virulence, with a mortality rate at 2.5 percent, compared to the previous influenza epidemics, which were less than 0.1 percent,” she said. “Most of humanity felt the effects of this strain of the influenza virus. It spread following the path of its human carriers, along trade routes and shipping lines. Outbreaks swept through North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Brazil, and the South Pacific. In India, the mortality rate was extremely high, at around 50 deaths from influenza per 1000 people.”
It’s not known where the disease made the jump from bird to human, but it likely was not from Spain. While the rest of Europe was engaged in an all-out war, Spain was on the sideline. Information from the war-consumed nations was being censored, but not from Spain. The first mention of Spanish influenza appeared in The New York Times on June 21, 1918. The story is sourced from an unnamed Dutch traveler, just returning from Germany.
“Spain Affected by German Sickness and Other Countries Will Be, Says Hollander,” the headline on the story reads. “‘The mysterious sickness, now prevalent in Spain, comes from Germany and will doubtless soon reach other countries,’ said a Dutch tailor who recently returned from Germany.”
On June 25 and June 27, The Times reported that German troops were infected by disease.
“Spanish Influenza is Raging in the German Army,” a June 27 headline read. “LONDON, June 26: Influenza is now epidemic all along the German front, according to advices received from the Dutch frontier, and the prevalence of this ailment is said to be hampering the preparations for offensive operations.”
On June 28, dateline Washington, D.C., The Times reported that the “epidemic is not regarded here as having serious proportions. It is clear that the soldier who has it is incapacitated for duty, and thousands may be down with the disease at once, so that military movements may be delayed.”
“The American troops have at no time shown any form of the disease,” the story reported. “Precautions have already been ordered, however, to meet any emergency.”
On July 3, a Spanish ship came to an American port, and was fumigated, a story reports. On July 11, kaiser Wilhelm II, the leader of Germany at the time, was reported to have fallen ill with the disease, and had to leave the western front of the war.
All along, Americans were promised that the disease could never hit home.
This is the first installment of a three-part series on the influenza pandemic of 1918.