This Week in History | The Spanish influenza

Nurse Taking Care Of Spanish Flu Patients at Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward (1)
A nurse taking care of Spanish flu patients at Walter Reed Hospital. COURTESY OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.

The pandemic that defined a century


Flu shots—every year we are told to get them. The flu kills, they say. The flu is dangerous, they cry. Many Americans pass up the flu shot every year, believing it to be less of a big deal than the rest of the world makes it out to be. These fears that many express about the flu are not without their warrants. Many believe in our so-called modern world filled with “accessible” medicine the flu is only the killer of the old, the infirmed, children, and the impoverished. Though our technology and ways of treating the flu have indeed advanced it is still a deadly killer, and those who lived through the Spanish Influenza of 1918 know it all too well. This week is the anniversary of the first outbreak of Spanish Influenza in the United States.

Patient Zero

On Mar. 4, 1918 the symptoms of the flu were first recorded on an army base called Fort Riley. Fort Riley was being used to train hundreds of soldiers. When a company cook became ill the flu spread like wildfire. Although soldiers were not the only ones affected by the outbreak of the flu in the United States, they were the perfect victim for it. Soldiers trained strenuously for long hours and their positions were physically demanding. Soldiers were often overworked and malnourished and their immune systems suffered as a result. They were the perfect victim, and the close-quarter nature of their living arrangements guaranteed the rapid spread of the Spanish flu.

Devastating truth

The Spanish Influenza killed more people than World War I. It was seen globally and new evidence suggests that it may have been as widespread as China. The American people were devastated by this virus. The mortality rate was so high and the symptoms spread so rapidly that communities were unable to keep up with their ill. From crowded flu wards to mass graves the flu made everyday life hell. Patients reported respiratory problems and painful breathing and often died in a matter of days.


The flu killed far more than the old and unwell. It affected previously healthy adults just as badly as it did with weaker patients. Though it killed less of the global population percentage wise, the disease was more devastating than the Black Death was in terms of casualties. It gave way to tireless research and the vaccines of today, that we often write-off as unnecessary. Though the Spanish Influenza of 1918 was a tragedy it should serve as a reminder to all of us that history is worth remembering. The next time you consider skipping a flu shot remember why we have them and consider the sacrifices of countless innocent victims of the 1918 pandemic.

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