The 1918 Flu Pandemic Part 1-World War I and the “Spanish Flu”
2018 marks the centennial of an event that is almost forgotten in our collective memory: the 1918 influenza pandemic. Over the next few months, we’ll feature stories about this global health catastrophe, focusing on how newspapers in Florida covered the topic. This first post will contemplate the origins of this pandemic, specifically looking at how it affected the ongoing war effort in the closing months of World War I.
Most of us know what influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is. We may associate it with symptoms which include fever, cough, fatigue, body aches, and more, which can appear abruptly. While doctors and researchers do their best to anticipate world-wide flu trends to thwart the virus today, it acts in unpredictable ways. In 1918, medical science was even less equipped to handle a particularly aggressive flu strain that “swept the world in three great waves and killed an estimated 20 million-40 million people in just one year” according to Kristy Duncan, a professor at the University of Toronto and Canada’s Minister of Science (Duncan 3).
In the United States, the disease went by many names including the “Spanish Flu.” Despite the name, the flu didn’t start in Spain, but, because Spain was neutral in WWI, the press in that country covered events surrounding the burgeoning epidemic much more thoroughly than nations embroiled in the conflict. Those involved in the war didn’t want to give any indication of weakness to their enemies, and the flu epidemic certainly weakened every country it affected. In Florida and other states, people even speculated that the sickness was actually spread by Germany to weaken the war effort in America. While multiple theories as to the flu’s origin exist, there is no scientific consensus about where it truly started.
What we do know is that conditions associated with WWI military camps, which included soldiers living in close quarters and increased travel due to the war, facilitated the spread of the disease. In America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 Alfred W. Crosby notes that “On September 11, the Sox won the World Championship, the navy announced that the pandemic had killed 26 sailors in and around Boston, and the first flu cases were recognized among navy personnel in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, and Illinois” (Crosby 46). Within two weeks of September 11, 1918, front page stories emerge in The Pensacola journal, The Lakeland evening telegram, and The Ocala evening star about instances of influenza spreading in military camps throughout the United States. Despite the need for new troops, by late September 1918 there were talks of suspending the draft due to the unrelenting spread of influenza. Nationwide, doctors recognized the need for quarantine in the face of a disease that was killing segments of the population who normally didn’t succumb to the flu.
The 1918 influenza pandemic affected the entire globe-but when did it get to Florida? A map in Crosby’s book shows that the that the epidemic started on Florida’s west coast between September 21-28 and the east coast between September 28-October 5 (Crosby 65). Troops stationed at Naval Air Station Pensacola were affected by the outbreak, as were people living in nearby Pensacola. In September, Dr. Paul Mossman of the U.S. Public Health Service visited Pensacola and made recommendations to both the military and businesses, like restaurants and theaters, about to how to limit the further spread of the flu. Despite his recommendations, by mid-October, the F.D. Sanders, mayor of Pensacola, requested that Captain Bennett, commander of the Naval Air Station, prevent “large numbers of sailors” from visiting the city due to the epidemic. That’s not to say soldiers didn’t help the town during the flu, in one story, service men were thanked for stepping in to serve as telephone operators during the crisis.
Soldiers were often prevented from going on leave, while others that were able to do so got sick while away from their stations. But the flu disrupted more than just the lives of those serving in the military. The pandemic also threatened the 4th Liberty Bond campaign, which ran during October 1918. Previous Liberty Bond drives depended on publicity campaigns which included airplane exhibitions and rallies with celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. With a deadly flu pandemic raging, public gatherings, while potentially beneficial to the war effort, were also a huge public health risk. Some cities, including Mobile, Alabama, banned all public gatherings “including Liberty Loan rallies.” Despite this risk, supporters in Pensacola rallied during mid-October to raise needed funds. The city was ultimately successfully, as was the overall campaign, but it should be noted the same jubilant edition of the paper also contains a society section full of notices about local people recovering from the flu.
The effects of the 1918 flu pandemic touched every segment of society. We have better numbers on the extent to which it affected the U.S. military during WWI than perhaps any other part of society. Crosby claims “the United States Navy, which had more accurate knowledge on its sailors than the USPHS did about civilians, estimated that perhaps as high as 40 percent of naval personnel had flu in 1918. Three hundred and sixty-one of every thousand soldiers in the United States in the same year were officially admitted to treatment as flu patients” (205). It is not surprising then, that many articles in our papers discuss the flu in relation to the ongoing war effort.
Citations and Additional Sources
Barry, John M. “How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/journal-plague-year-180965222/.
Byerly, Carol R. “The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919.” Public Health Reports 2010; 125 (Suppl 3): 82-91. Accessed July 5, 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862337/.
Crosby, Alfred W. America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Duncan, Kirsty. Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist’s Search for a Killer Virus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
Gunderman, Richard. “The ‘greatest pandemic in history’ was 100 years ago-but many of us still get the basic facts wrong.” The Conversation, January 11, 2018. https://theconversation.com/the-greatest-pandemic-in-history-was-100-years-ago-but-many-of-us-still-get-the-basic-facts-wrong-89841.
Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.