The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919

Policemen wearing face masks during 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Policemen wearing masks provided by the American Red Cross in Seattle, 1918

There have been four influenza pandemics documented since the beginning of the twentieth century, including the H1N1 pandemic that occurred in 2009. The Great Pandemic of 1918 is the one that all pandemics are measured against.

A flu like none other, the 1918 Flu Pandemic was one of the worst natural disasters in history. An estimated 50 million people perished worldwide, including approximately 675,000 in the U.S.

The Pandemic occurred in three waves throughout 1918 and 1919, affecting mainly healthy young adults. This particular flu could act quickly--many people would awake healthy in the morning and be dead by day’s end. The first wave occurred when mild influenza erupted in the late spring and summer of 1918. The second wave occurred with an outbreak of severe influenza in the fall of 1918 and the final wave occurred in the spring of 1919.

Soldiers returning from World War I brought the disease home. While the war did not cause the flu, the close troop quarters and massive troop movements hastened the outbreak. Modern transportation systems made it easier for soldiers, sailors, and civilian travelers to spread the disease.

In the United States the disease was first observed at Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 4, 1918, and Queens, New York, on March 11, 1918.

On October 1st of 1918, the Illinois Health Officer reported 374 cases to the Public Health Service, including 14 deaths. By mid-October, the disease was epidemic in Chicago, Peoria, Kankakee and Rockford. By month’s end, Chicago was reporting 10,000 new cases each week.

Nurse with medical mask Mailman with medical mask 1918 Flu Victims St. Louis Spanish Flu - Walter Reed Medical Center

Archives.gov - The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918