10 Things About the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

I thought about doing a post about the traditions and origins of Homecoming Week, but I realized that I’ve done a lot of posts about sports-centric or sports-related topics. But while I was contemplating a post on Homecoming, I came across a piece of trivia that steered me in a new direction. Most of the homecoming celebrations for colleges and universities in the United States that try to lay claim to the longest celebrated tradition almost all have a gap in 1918 and/or 1919.

Why is not a great mystery to any world history nerd, or Twilight fan for that matter. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 killed millions of people worldwide. Hospitals were overcrowded with sick patients, so universities and colleges (and churches, high schools, community centers, etc) were often converted to makeshift clinics. And since the flu is, as it always has been and continues to be, highly contagious, you can imagine why people might have wanted to avoid crowded sporting events and the like.

When people think of an illness that killed millions and affected world history, most conjure up thoughts of the Bubonic Plague. However, the “Spanish Flu” affected more people. And a single virus that makes its way around the world could give a writer a lot of ideas about how something as simple as a cough can shape the worlds we build.

10 Things About the Influenza Pandemic of 1918:

  1. An epidemic is an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and across multiple communities, but a pandemic spreads throughout the world. Both words are Greek in origin and epidemic means “among the people”, while pandemic means “all the people”. The people part can also be translated as “district”, but since I have a less than rudimentary grasp on Greek, I’m just going to roll with it. The Influenza Pandemic affected most of the world, including remote islands and the Arctic. It killed somewhere between 3% and 5% of the Earth’s population at the time.
  2. Afraid of mass panic, many countries coming out of the war censored how widespread the flu was as much as they could for as long as they could. However, Spain had been neutral in the war and had no wartime censorship in effect. Other countries felt free to report on how the disease was ravaging the Spanish population, including the king. This misled the general public to believe that the flu originated in Spain, and that Spain was hit particularly hard by it. In truth, scholars and historians still aren’t certain where it began. So it’s called the Spanish Flu because of how newspapers reported it, not because it actually has any tie to Spain itself.
  3. It was not any more aggressive than previous influenza strains, or most since. However, a combination of crowded medical camps and hospitals, poor hygiene, and malnourishment helped it spread quickly. Many of the lives lost during the pandemic were actually from bacterial infections that patients got because their immune systems were so weak from fighting the virus.
  4. The reason for overcrowded medical camps and malnourishment had a lot to do with World War I. If the war had never happened, the pandemic might not have either. That’s not to say that the flu originated in Europe at the time. Different researchers have claimed the spread of this strain of the flu began in China, Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe. There is still great debate about where the spread of the disease began. But as travel modernized, the disease could be carried quicker and more efficiently than ever before.
  5. It has been dubbed “the greatest medical holocaust in human history”. It killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS killed in twenty-four years. It also killed more people in a single year than the Black Death killed over the course of 100 years. Think about that the next time you pass on getting a flu shot.
  6. The pandemic was truly worldwide and not just “Euro-centric World”, “First World”, or “Developed World”. There was not a single region of the globe that was unaffected. 3-5% of the world’s population died, but that was only somewhere between 10% and 20% of the people who contracted the flu at the time.
  7. While typical flu epidemics tend to be more dangerous for the very young and the elderly, the 1918 pandemic was different because it actually killed mostly young adults. Half of the fatalities were between ages 20 and 40.
  8. Because of secondary infections, symptoms such as bleeding from the ears, coughing up blood, and bloody stools, the flu was misdiagnosed as a number of other conditions early on. These included dengue, cholera, and typhoid.
  9. It came in two waves, but disappeared almost as quickly as it appeared. The first wave of flu during the pandemic wasn’t much worse than the usual flu season numbers. The second wave was the deadly pandemic. However, less than three weeks after the largest spike in death tolls, many cities were reporting that the illness seemed to be disappearing. There are many theories about why this is, but the prevailing one seems to be that the virus began to mutate (which is common) to a less deadly strain.
  10. Even after the flu died down at the end of the pandemic, the havoc wasn’t over. Studies showed that babies who were in utero during the outbreak were more likely to exhibit physical abnormalities or disabilities at birth and in the long-term were less likely to achieve the same socioeconomic status or educational milestones as the generation before or after.

The Pandemic of 1918 changed how we study the flu, how we classify the flu, and how we treat the flu. Generations were affected and populations decimated. All from a “simple” respiratory illness. There are a lot of plot and world-building possibilities in that concept.

Also, flu season is rapidly approaching. Get vaccinated.

One more time for the people in the back.


And if you are running a fever, stay home if at all possible.