The world had been ravaged and forever transformed by an unprecedented war that was in its final act. And so something as inconsequential as a bout of influenza garnered little attention. After all it was just the flu, something people dealt with most every winter. Even though the symptoms – headache, body ache, fever and dry, hacking cough – were more intense in nature, and the rate of infection was well above average, the overall death rate was relatively small. In some instances those afflicted had symptoms so mild doctors were led to conclude that the patient suffered from allergies or something similar, but not the flu. Unusual aspects of this influenza was the speed with which some victims were struck with symptoms and that most deaths were young adults.
Another reason few took notice of the influenza that was sweeping through the country and around the world in the first months of 1918 was the heavily censored wartime press in the United States, British Empire, Germany and the other warring nations. The exception was in neutral Spain. When the flu swept through the country and sickened the king, the intensity of the disease was noted in articles and editorials.
By the first of summer the disease was being experienced in most every country on earth but by mid July it was being viewed as an anomaly. A medical report prepared by the United States Army noted that the influenza epidemic was winding down. Late in the summer Switzerland was struck with a disease that had many of the symptoms of influenza but with greater intensity. And the death toll began to climb. People would feel sick in the morning, and be dead by evening. Again, it was the young adult that seemed to succumb first. On an army base located in France, in less than one week more than 1,000 soldiers were debilitated by the flu, almost 700 required hospitalization and nearly 50 died.
The pandemic that is now often referred to as Spanish Flu, and the fear it generated transformed America and the world. Factories, shipyards and offices were emptied as employees became ill, or were afraid to come to work. Public gatherings were restricted. Using the script set by the president, the Los Angeles Director of Public Health announced that, “if ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.” Two days later as the number of cases climbed, he ordered the closure of all schools, churches and theaters, and the suspension of public gatherings. The Albuquerque Morning Journal, with a front page banner, offered advice – Don’t Let The Flu Frighten You To Death. Within weeks remote ranching and mining towns were devastated as one hundred percent of their populations were to ill to work or travel for supplies. In several instances an entire mining town would die from the influenza, just the flu.
The long term ramifications from deaths can only be imagined. In Russia and Iran, an estimated seven percent of the population would die before the pandemic ended. Robert Speer, the mayor of Denver, died on May 14, 1918. Rose Cleveland, the sister of President Grover Cleveland died on November 22, 1918. Driver Johnny Aitken who had led the first Indianapolis 500 died on October 15, 1918. Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves, the re-elected president of Brazil, died before taking office on January 16, 1919. Horace and John Dodge, manufacturers of the Dodge automobile did not die from influenza, but rather from complications made worse by underlying health issues.
In the 21st century, especially in countries with access to the wonders of modern medicine and technology, we have come to believe that plagues, pestilence and pandemics can be kept at bay or even subdued. The terror of polio outbreaks is bit a fading memory. Until the recent abandonment of vaccinations by generally rational people measles was a relative rarity. As a result, the Coronavirus that is currently sweeping the globe is rather jarring, a rude wake up call. And so it is easy to succumb to panic, fear and hysteria, especially when we have access to instant news, and rumor.
I have never been a fan of horror movies. Real life is much scarier. If you would like to read about a truly terrifying episode in history, and put the current crisis in perspective I suggest picking up a copy of The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.