Influenza: the Terror of 1918

Photo Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

It started slowly, with one patient at a time. Trickling slowly from military bases to small towns, from small towns to large cities, it gathered speed and devastated with an unrelenting ferocity. For one year it ravaged the nation, distorting the American way of life and creating a landscape of fear.

One hundred years later, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919 reads like something out of a horror story. We are just now beginning to grasp the effects of the disease, but it is possible that we will never fully understand. How — in a single year of the twentieth century — did a disease wipe out 50 million deaths around the globe, 650,000 of whom were Americans?

The origin of the virus is still largely a mystery. In March of 1918, reports emerged of disease-stricken soldiers in Kansas. It started as 100, then grew to 500 infected soldiers. But the next six months saw only sporadic reports of influenza around the country, mainly in the close confines of military camps. There was no reason to worry — out of the 500 infected soldiers, only a handful of deaths were reported.

And so the summer passed on, Americans blissfully unaware of the danger lurking among them. It was not until the beginning of September, when the temperature cooled and autumn approached, that the influenza reared its ugly head.

September — 14,000 cases are reported at a U.S. Army training camp near Boston. October — hundreds of thousands of Americans contract the virus, resulting in 195,000 deaths in that month alone. The disease spread from the Boston down the eastern seaboard, striking Washington D.C., Atlanta, and other cities. In Atlanta, the city temporarily shut down all activities to stop the spread of the virus. After 2,000 cases were reported in early October, all churches, schools, and theaters were closed for the entire month. “Public Gathering Places Closed by City Council for Two Months,” the headline of the Atlanta Constitution read on October 8, 1918.

The terrifying numbers tell only half of the story. The true details can be seen in the personal narratives of survivors of the event, many of whom were children when they witnessed the epidemic’s outbreak.

In a 2006 interview with NBC, William H. Sardo Jr. recalled the events from when he was a boy. “There was a feeling that they couldn’t turn to God, other than in prayer. They liked the feeling of going to church, and they were forbidden.” Sardo, 94, was six years old when the influenza hit. “They disappeared from the face of the earth,” he said.

In February of 1919, the disease began to disappear with the same mysteriousness as it appeared. It left a trail of death, despair, and confusion in its wake, lowering life expectancy in the United States by 12 years. There is speculation that it also may have influenced the 1919 Treaty of Versailles — it is rumored that President Woodrow Wilson, who collapsed during the meetings, had earlier contracted the disease.

When looking at the influenza epidemic from a historical viewpoint, it is difficult to find any silver lining in the horrific disease of 1918–1919. Perhaps, as with many events in our country’s history, it is another reminder of the strength of this nation. Americans have always found a way to reconcile the past with the future, darkness with the hope of better days still ahead. The men and women who survived the terrible disease chose not to dwell on the past. They chose to move on, to start families, and to hope in a nation after war. They were the mothers and fathers of our Greatest Generation, the Americans who overcame the test of World War II.

It makes our troubles pale in comparison, doesn’t it?

© Aaron Schnoor 2019

Occasional Writer, Full-Time Student at Campbell University, and Editor of Exploring Economics

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