195,000 Americans died in October 1918 from the Spanish Flu, making the month the deadliest in U.S. history (in terms of American deaths). In total, about 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish Flu during 1918-1920. Some historians claim that 1918 was the worst year in American history given the double whammy of World War I and the Spanish Flu. According to history.com, ” between war and sickness, life expectancy fell from 51 to 39 years of age in 1918.” Forty-thousand U.S. soldiers died of the Spanish Flu.
As a frame of reference to compare the 195,000 deaths in October 1918 and the 675,000 total American deaths from the flu, here are the numbers of Americans killed during wars:
Worldwide, about 50 million people were killed by the Spanish Flu or somewhere between 2% and 5% of the world population at the time. As a comparison, with our current world population of 7.7 billion, a similarly deadly pandemic would translate into over 250 million worldwide deaths.
Why is it Called the “Spanish Flu” and a Few Other Facts
- The “Spanish Flu” did not begin in Spain. Its origin was likely in Haskell County, Kansas and then infected young men traveled to Camp Funston, also in Kansas, where 26,000 soldiers were training for deployment during World War I. Many of these soldiers became infected and there were thousands of cases of flu at the Camp and many deaths. Soldiers spread the flu as they traveled to other Army camps around the U.S. The flu then spread overseas as they were deployed to war.
- Why then is it called the “Spanish Flu” rather than “Kansas flu”? The press in the U.S., Britain and other countries greatly under-reported the flu pandemic sweeping their countries because of laws limiting what the press could publish against the war effort. From the excellent book Get Well Soon – History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright:
A morale law had been passed in 1917 after the United States entered World War I. It stated you could receive twenty years in jail if you chose to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.” This law seems unconstitutional, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court ruling (Schenck v. United States).
- The U.S. government downplayed the influenza outbreak in order to not panic citizens and also to not detract from the war effort. The press was afraid to publish about the flu given the morale law.
- Great Britain and others had similar laws that suppressed the ability of the press to report on anything that could be construed as against the war effort. As a result of these laws, in the U.S. and much of Europe very little was reported about the flu pandemic. Spain, however, was neutral during the war and its press published a great amount about the flu. Thus, wire service reports of a flu outbreak in Madrid in the spring of 1918 led to the pandemic being called the “Spanish flu,” even though it originated elsewhere.
The origins of the Spanish Flu are not known. There is some speculation that it derived from livestock or birds and mutated so that it could jump species to humans. A big concern is what to do if similar pandemic hits (many said that is a matter of “when” and not “if”).
IFOD on Pandemic Preparedness 101
This might be a good time to mention that if you learn about an airborne virus that seems to be killing otherwise healthy young people in your area from a reputable medical journal, you are reading very bad news. Go to the grocery store and start stocking up on supplies immediately. If you have someplace relatively isolated to live, go there. Doing so might feel a bit silly or paranoid, but, honestly, neither of those responses would be overreactions.-Get Well Soon, History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
Great history lesson of how the press and the government can work together to influence the public sector.
My grandmother’s brother died in Kansas City in 1918 of the “Spanish Flu.” I never knew that the pandemic probably started in Kansas.
It underscores the the need to have a free press unencumbered by government influence.