The 1918 Pandemic

December 9, 2020  - by 
the 1918 pandemic at Camp Funston

With everything that’s happened due to COVID-19, many people are looking to the 1918 pandemic for answers. As the last major worldwide pandemic, the 1918 pandemic offers some insight in an otherwise unprecedented time. 

What can we learn from the Spanish flu of 1918? Studying a historic pandemic can help us anticipate what we might be able expect from COVID-19. It can also help us see what worked last time the world was faced with something similar. 

nurses tend to a man from the 1918 pandemic.

1918 Flu Pandemic History

At the end of World War I, the world encountered a new threat: the Spanish flu. What was it that made the Spanish flu so severe? Where did it come from, and how did it start?

Where Did the Spanish Flu Start?

It might surprise you to learn that the Spanish flu didn’t actually start in Spain. In reality, it could have started in any number of countries. Scientists have traced it back to France, China, Great Britain, and the United States, but its exact origin is still unknown.

So why was it called the “Spanish flu”? The answer goes back to politics. Many world powers at the time were involved in World War I, and leaders didn’t want news of the flu to demoralize troops. Spain, on the other hand, managed to remain a neutral force and freely reported news of the influenza.

To the world, it looked like Spain was the epicenter of the pandemic. Spain instead believed that it originated in France and dubbed it the “French flu.”

an ambulance carriage carries a man with the Spanish Flu of 1918.

What Caused the Spanish Flu?

Experts believe that the Spanish flu evolved from a bird flu, making it possible for birds to transmit the disease to humans. Its evolution allowed it to spread through droplets in the air caused by coughing, sneezing, breathing, and talking. 

The Spanish flu has this in common with other pandemics in the last century. The Asian flu in 1957 mutated from a strain found in ducks, the Hong Kong flu of 1968 may have evolved from viruses infecting birds and pigs, and the swine flu in 2009 mutated from viruses found in pig herds. COVID-19 also may have evolved from animal viruses likely found in bats.

How Long Did the 1918 Pandemic Last?

The 1918 pandemic began in the spring of 1918 and lasted through the summer of 1919, roughly 18 months total. In that time, there were three major waves of the pandemic. The first wave happened in the spring of 1918 when the virus was introduced. The second and most severe wave occurred in the fall of 1918. The third and final wave lasted through the winter and spring months of 1919.

Scientists anticipate similar waves throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in December 2019, with the first wave of the pandemic hitting in the winter and spring months of 2020.

A Time Line of the 1918 Pandemic

Below are major events that took place during the 1918 pandemic: 

people wear masks on trolleys during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

March 1918

On March 4, the world’s first official case of the flu is recorded in Camp Funston, Kansas, USA. One hundred other soldiers at the camp have symptoms within a day, and there are over 500 cases at the camp within a week. Throughout March, cases also begin appearing elsewhere in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

April 1918–May 1918

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers deploy to Europe for World War I. Cases spread through France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain. It later reaches Russia, North Africa, India, and Japan.

June 1918–July 1918

Outbreaks occur in China, Brazil, the South Pacific, and Australia. By July, the first wave begins to recede.

September 1918–November 1918

The second and most severe wave of the virus emerges. Global troop mobilization encourages the spread. Medical staff and resources are overwhelmed worldwide. Governments start implementing safety precautions, such as requiring masks, closing public spaces, and requesting personal sanitization.

November 1918

World War I ends, and people around the world celebrate. Public celebrations and soldiers returning home enable further spread of the flu. 

January 1919–June 1919

The third wave of the pandemic begins. This wave is less severe than the second and gradually tapers off, marking the end of the pandemic.

a woman wears a mask while she works during the 1918 Spanish Flu.

How Many People Died from the Spanish Flu in 1918?

While it’s hard to know exactly how many people died during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, most experts estimate between 17 and 50 million people died. Some experts even think the numbers may have been as high as 100 million.

What Was the Death Rate of the Spanish Flu 1918 Pandemic?

The Spanish flu killed somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of the global population, with most estimates putting the global death rate at roughly 2.5 or 3 percent. As many as 500 million people were infected with the Spanish flu, approximately a third of the world’s population at the time. With most experts estimating 17 to 50 million deaths total, the death rate of those infected may have been around 3.4 to 10 percent.

Who Did the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Affect?

The Spanish flu affected children and young adults more than any other age demographic. Why would young adults, who have stronger immune systems, be hit so hard? Recent research suggests that a young adult’s strong immune system is precisely why the 1918 pandemic proved fatal for them.

The particular strain of the flu that caused the 1918 pandemic elicits an especially strong immune reaction that leads to severe inflammation and fluid buildup. As a result, pneumonia and other secondary infections were more likely in young adults, whose immune reaction would have been stronger.

In contrast, COVID-19 typically affects children and young adults less than other demographics. Instead, it has hit the elderly and those with weakened immune systems particularly hard.

Nurses train and treat pandemic victims.

How Does the COVID-19 Pandemic Compare with the Spanish Flu Pandemic?

The 1918 pandemic was the result of a perfect storm. The influenza strain itself spread quickly and proved to be particularly fatal. On top of that, many countries withheld information from the public to support efforts in World War I in addition to sending soldiers around the world and increasing worldwide spread. Flu vaccines had not yet been introduced, and antiviral and antibacterial treatments were limited. All of this worked together to heighten the impact of the Spanish flu.

two people walk while wearing face coverings

In contrast, COVID-19 has been widely reported in many places around the world, making it easier for the masses to stay informed on safety procedures, locations to avoid, and the number of active cases. Scientists have also jumped headfirst into researching vaccines, mask effectiveness, risk factors, and new treatments, all in an effort to keep people safe.

In addition, there aren’t currently millions of soldiers traveling the world and spreading the virus. While global travel is more accessible and common today than it was in 1918, many countries quickly implemented travel restrictions, helping to limit the spread. 

Leaders also took notes from the 1918 pandemic and applied them to our situation. If you’ve heard “flatten the curve” or “social distance,” you can likely thank the Spanish flu for those safety precautions. In 1918, cities across the United States used different precautions when the Spanish flu came knocking. Researchers found that cities such as St. Louis, Missouri, that required social distancing were able to avoid large spikes in cases like those that overwhelmed hospitals in other cities. Many countries and states today have implemented similar practices to accomplish the same success.

Other changes since 1918 have helped better prepare the world for COVID-19. For one thing, treatments of secondary bacterial infections have drastically improved. Scientists around the world also have better resources than ever to study and produce new treatments and vaccines. Additionally, hygiene and living conditions as a whole have improved. 

What Can We Learn from the 1918 Pandemic?

Although the current pandemic can at times be overwhelming and scary, the world is far better prepared to handle it than it was 100 years ago. While COVID-19 is an entirely different beast than the Spanish flu, many strides are being taken to reduce COVID-19’s impact—and one day, like the Spanish flu, it will no longer impact daily life. 

two women wear face coverings as they sell food.

Is the Spanish Flu Still around Today?

The 1918 pandemic ended in 1919, likely due to the sheer number of people infected and a resulting higher level of herd immunity. Flu viruses—and therefore flu vaccines—had not yet been discovered. Today, different strands of the 1918 Spanish flu still circulate. Seasonal flu vaccines that have been available since the 1940s help protect against it as well as higher levels of immunity toward it.

This outlook certainly provides hope that COVID-19 will similarly disperse, but only time will tell. Hopefully, the introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine along with higher levels of immunity will level off the effects in coming months.

One of the Spanish flu’s survivors even lived to catch COVID-19 and tell the tale!

A Look to the Future

Learning about how the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic affected the lives of those who lived through it has helped people around the world understand and gain emotional fortitude while facing the effects of COVID-19. You almost certainly have ancestors who lived through the 1918 pandemic. Research an ancestor who lived during 1918–19. Then explore their FamilySearch Memories to see what you can learn about their experiences.

a boy goes to school wearing a face mask.

You can also use FamilySearch Memories to share how COVID-19 has impacted your life. This will help preserve those experiences for future generations. Our response to the pandemic will undoubtedly help shape the response to future outbreaks, just as the Spanish flu helped to shape our response to COVID-19. Sharing your experiences can also help you connect with, support, and draw strength from others experiencing similar situations and emotions right now.

What have you experienced during the pandemic? How did the Spanish flu impact your ancestors?

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  1. Here is a memoir I wrote for my family history about my mom’s experience with the Spanish flu.

    Violet East Merryman: Memories of the Spanish Flu
    As I write this in 2020, we are in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. It brings back memories of a story my mom told me about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920.
    My mom, Violet East, graduated early in June 1918 from Clay Center High School in Clay Center, Nebraska. A few days after graduation she moved into the girl’s dormitory at the State Normal School in Kearney, Nebraska. She was studying to earn a Nebraska State teaching certificate. It was a three-month program that would be completed in time for her to begin teaching in September.
    That summer, she enjoyed her classes and friends and, on some weekends, took the train from Kearney to Clay Center to be with her family. When she stayed in Kearney on the weekends, she and her friends dated some of the local young men. That is how she met my father.
    Her teaching position in September was at Big Springs, NE, a small town in Western Nebraska. (1920 population about 400). In those days, most teachers were young women. They received low pay, and, in most cases, their meager pay included room and board at the home of the parents of the students. And in exchange for this board and room they were expected to help with the chores and the children. So, Mom lived in town with a family who had several children. Not exactly my idea of a great job.
    A few weeks after she started her new teaching assignment, the Spanish Flu hit Big Springs. The flu was highly contagious, so they closed the school to slow down the spread of the virus.
    While Mom was waiting for the school to re-open, the lady of the house contracted the Spanish flu. She was not hospitalized but was bed-ridden at home. She was extremely sick, and my mother was expected to provide nursing care to the mother, tend the children, cook, do laundry, and clean house.
    As time passed, Mom’s family in Clay Center became very worried about her health. My Grandpa East said if she stayed where she was, she would be killed by the virus or be worked to death. So, he travelled by train across the state of Nebraska to pick her up and bring her home in time for the Christmas holidays.
    Luckily, the woman finally recovered, but Mom did not return to her teaching assignment. She stayed at home with her family and married my dad the following February.
    I am surprised that my mom did not get the Spanish flu. She was the only caretaker for the woman who was ill. I have heard that some healthy young people can contract Covid-19 and be asymptomatic with no obvious symptoms. Sometimes I wonder if my mom could have had the Spanish flu and been asymptomatic.
    Mom’s experience with the Spanish flu gives me hope that someday my life will get back to normal.
    Phyllis Merryman Cloyd, 10/20/2020, Rev. 11/25/2020

  2. My grandfather worked for the Philadelphia Electric Company during the Spanish Flu pandemic. He was assigned a crew and a van to pick up corpses and deliver them to city graveyards, The city gave out whiskey to these workers, one shot twice a day as a prophylaxis against the flu. He worked 50 years for the Company and he lived to 81.

  3. My grandfather, Keith Hatfield of Centerville, Indiana joined the Navy in 1918 and took his basic training at the Great Lakes Navy Base. He became a Corpsman and was stationed at the Great Lakes Navel Hospital. He worked there throughout the pandemic and was discharged from there. One of his duties was to take the bodies to the train station and ship them to their hometowns. He did not get the flu and remained in Chicago for all of the enlistment.

    1. Wow! What an amazing story. I love the fact that it hasn’t been lost. I’m amazed that he was able to avoid infection in a hospital. ❤️

  4. My grandmother’s mother died in 1916 at the age of 24 from consumption. I understand that to be Tuberculosis. How did Tuberculosis and Spanish Flu effect eachother and could misdiagnosis be common with the two? Wasn’t it until the 1940’s that a treatment for Tuberculosis was made? Had medicine advanced enough during that time to identify the difference of the two? After my great grandmother died in 1916, her widowed husband a year later in 1917 went to WWI , served, returned and lived to be an old man.

  5. Bello questo articolo.
    La mia bisnonna è nata nel 1918, a dicembre. Il ricordo dell’influenza “Spagnola” da sempre è stata oggetto di racconti tra nonni e genitori ed ha suscitato in noi, allora ragazzini, una grandissima apprensione, una paura che l’evento potesse ripetersi…..

    Google Translate – Italian to English: Nice this article.
    My great grandmother was born in 1918, in December. The memory of the “Spanish” influence has always been the subject of stories between grandparents and parents and aroused in us, then children, a great apprehension, a fear that the event could repeat itself … ..

  6. My great-grandfather’s wife died of the flu in October 1918, leaving behind her 3 small children who recovered quickly. My great-grandfather later married her sister, from whom I am descended. Just goes to show that life still goes on even after the worst of tragedies. I hope all are staying well and being wise!

  7. I loved this article. There is so much research and facts in it. Thank you. My great grandmother was just 19 years old when she died from the Spanish Flu early in 1919. I never thought I would become closer to her by going through a pandemic in our time. I’m grateful that we were able to learn from the earlier pandemic. I have personally learned so much in the last year.

  8. My mother was born in January 1920 in Provo, Utah, USA. Although she was born at home, either she or her mother was diagnosed with the flu, so my mother was removed from the home and placed with another family for a time to prevent spread of the flu. So at least at that place, authorities we’re still worried about the pandemic.

  9. In 1918 my father lost his 18 year old brother to the Spanish flu, two weeks later he lost a sister who was in her early twenties and newly married.

  10. Amazing to read up on the 1918 Spanish Flue Pandemic – thank you so much. It brings home how important recording our personal histories under Memories

  11. El Covid-19, nos afecta a todos, cambió nuestras costumbres, no hay reuniones familiares, vivimos encerrados en nuestras casas.

    Google Translate – Spanish to English: Covid-19 affects us all, it changed our customs, there are no family gatherings, we live locked in our homes.