Spanish Influenza Epidemic in 1918 Part 1

About the Spanish Influenza Epidemic in 1918, the history of the disease that struck millions throughout the world.


Without warning, the most frightening of all mass murderers, "Spanish influenza," struck a Midwestern U.S. army fort on a spring day during W.W. I. In weeks, the whole of the civilized world was busy burying its dead.

When: March, 1918.

Where: Fort Riley, Kans., then the world.

The Loss: 21,640,000 people died.

The Disaster: The previously unheard of disease 1st hit the cantonment of Camp Funston, in the 20,000 sunbaked acres of Fort Riley, and spread quickly through other military installations from coast to coast. Doctors didn't know what it was, or how to treat it. Soon the personnel of navy ships at Norfolk and Boston were out of action, their high temperatures resulting in a prognosis of pneumonia. In California, 1/3 of the prisoners at San Quentin were afflicted.

French surgeons called it la grippe when les poilus--the French "Tommies"--aching in bone and muscle, conducted their own symphony of sneezes and sniffles. Ten thousand cases of Flanders grippe put English Tommies out for the count. Overnight, Scotland began reporting 15 to 20 deaths a day. German doctors called it the Blitz Katarrh when 160,000 Berliners took to their beds. By summer, London was reporting 300 deaths a week.

Unchecked, the killer disease ravaged China and India, hopped the Pacific to zero in on Hawaii, and almost simultaneously attacked Alaska, Puerto Rico, Iceland, Norway, and the Falkland Islands. Then it struck Spain. After that, physicians dubbed it the "Spanish influenza."

This illusive harvester of death swept across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada to afflict millions and claim many hundred thousands of lives. Neither small villages nor big cities escaped. In Pennsylvania alone, a quarter-million residents were bedridden. Nowhere were there enough coffins, graves, or undertakers. Mass burials were common. Dr. Carl Holmberg, head of the Board of Health for Brockton, Mass., lamented that he was fighting a ghost. Industries were all but paralyzed, and ships at sea limped along with short crews.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt was carried ashore when the Leviathan docked in New York in September. Before departing from Hoboken with 3,100 troops, 200 more casualties were brought ashore to be hospitalized. On the Leviathan's arrival in France, 200 of its passengers were buried on foreign soil. Not a country in the world was untouched. Doctors were confounded by the disease.

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