In the fall of 1918, American involvement in the Great War in Europe was at its peak. Ships filled with wounded troops returning from combat crowded the Eastern harbors. At least this time, recent advances in medical knowledge meant that more of the wounded were surviving–a much different scenario than had been experienced in the late Civil War. Using antibiotics, X-ray machines, improved surgical techniques, and other recent advances in medicine, doctors and nurses on the front worked valiantly to send more boys home alive.
But unbeknownst to the medical community, an even deadlier foe lurked in a number of locations around the world against which they had no defense. A new strain of influenza would soon make its appearance and wipe out an estimated 20 to 40 million people worldwide in less than a year. In the United States alone, “more than 25 percent…became sick, and some 675,000 Americans died during the pandemic” (History.com staff, 2010).
Known familiarly as the Spanish flu because Spain was one of the first countries to experience its devastation, this highly contagious disease hit young, healthy people particularly hard. New recruits swarming into crowded army camps around the U. S. proved a fertile field for the spread of the germ. At Camp Sherman in Ohio, for example, the flu wiped out almost 1200 men (Influenza epidemic, n.d.). And the movement of troops across Europe compounded the problem. One journalist stated that “more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war” (History.com staff, 2010).
The Spanish flu was particularly virulent. Starting out as a mild case with the ordinary symptoms of flu, it would rapidly develop into a vicious type of bacterial pneumonia, leaving its victims gasping for breath and quickly causing death by suffocation. As noted in Billings’ article (1997), stories circulated of people becoming ill while walking to work and dying within hours. In another case, four women were playing cards late into the night, and by morning three of them were dead. In San Diego, children would jump rope to a new rhyme: “I had a little bird. Its name was Enza. I opened up the window. And in-flu-enza” (Billings, 1997).
As with modern versions of the flu, this one had no respect for social class or age or gender. In some places, whole towns came to a standstill. Schools, businesses, churches, and theaters closed.There was no mail delivery or garbage pick-up. People were required to wear masks and to refrain from shaking hands or gathering in crowds. Private homes and other buildings became temporary hospitals. Funeral parlors and grave diggers couldn’t keep up with the demand.
The shortage of doctors and nurses became particularly acute at the home front. Many medical personnel had already been pressed into service overseas, and those left in the U.S. were overwhelmed trying to care for both the wounded soldiers and the new influx of flu victims. In the small Midwest town of Willard, Ohio, Dr. Harry G. Blaine, my great-grandfather, was solicited by the Surgeon General to serve as an Army physician, but hastened to reassure his fellow citizens in Willard that he would not leave his current practice unless the need became urgent. He was one of only two physicians left in the town.
The situation could have been worse. Due to the war and all the restrictions it imposed on the public, the American people were already used to government regulations. “People allowed for strict measures and loss of freedom during the war as they submitted to the needs of the nation ahead of their personal needs” (Billings, 1997). Public health officials therefore had an easier time enforcing their rules during the epidemic. No vaccines were available to prevent this dreaded disease, but people readily obeyed imposed quarantines and restrictions on travel and thus helped to slow its spread.
The flu pandemic of 1918 paved the way for the development of the first licensed flu vaccine in the 1940s and encouraged the public to accept the role of medical science in preventing future pandemics.
Billings, M. (1997). The influenza pandemic of 1918. Retrieved from https://virus.stanford.edu/uda/
History.com/staff. (2010). 1918 flu pandemic. History.com. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/1918-flu-pandemic
Influenza epidemic of 1918. (n.d.). Ohio History Central. Retrieved from http://www.Ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Influenza_Epidemic_of_1918