The Spanish Flu, 1918 - Part One

Updated: May 21, 2020

"The Spanish Flu" was perhaps the most devastating outbreak of a disease in modern history that started in early 1918 towards the end of the Great War (WW1) and lasted for almost 3 years with the most fatalities of any recent pandemic with roughly 500 million cases and around 50 million deaths. This is a two-part research into the events leading up to the global outbreak and how the exemplary work of a brave scientist nearly three decades later was instrumental in discovering the virus that caused the pandemic.

Patient Zero

On the morning of March 11, 1918, Private Albert M. Gitchell, a 26-year old cook at Camp Funston (Fort Riley, Kansas) rushed into the camp clinic with a 103°F fever and a headache. The pain, as he later stated, was becoming "unbearable"; so much so that he had to skip making breakfast for the soldiers at the camp and report sick to the admitting desk of Building 91. We find an elaborate description of the events following this in A. A. Hoehling's book, The Great Epidemic and it reads as follows -

"He was feverish, suffered from a sore throat, headache and muscular pains. Gitchell was quickly banished to a contagious ward. Hardly had a corpsman put a thermometer in the soldier’s mouth when Corporal Lee W. Drake from the First Battalion, Headquarters Transportation Detachment, reported to the same admitting desk in Building 91. His symptoms, even to a 103° fever, were identical with Gitchell’s. Two cases with a rubber stamp similarity could have been coincidence. However, when Sergeant Adolph Hurby came coughing in moments later, the duty corpsman called for the chief nurse. By the time Lieutenant Harding had arrived at Building 91 two other sick soldiers were awaiting admission. Miss Harding knew she was confronted with a potentially grave situation."

Now, the book goes on to discuss a veteran Doctor Schneider, a skillful surgeon, who was called upon by Lieutenant Harding to deal with the situation that was getting out of hand. However, we can find no sources tracing back to this individual in any public records and his name is not mentioned in the Acknowledgments or the Bibliography sections of the book. However, we do find references to First Lieutenant Elizabeth Harding in the book and we also find detailed accounts of her time in Camp Funston online which ensures that she was there when it all happened. The story goes that nearly 500 soldiers were bedridden by lunchtime that day and more kept pouring in. Soon, the clinic was overwhelmed as the number of active cases quintupled within a week and it was becoming impossible to manage the situation. However, the local outbreak receded as fast as it came, and thinking it was just plain old' influenza, no medical investigation was conducted further into the matter. It was not until the month of April that a local doctor sent out a health report from Haskell County, Kansas to the Public Health Service informing of 18 severe cases and 3 deaths due to this mysterious flu. At the time, the outcome of the war was still hanging by the balance as the Allied troops could make no progress on the French borders and there were, therefore, more important matters to attend to than some random deaths to some mysterious disease.

Camp Funston during the Influenza outbreak

The Spanish Flu

Towards the end of May, thousands of American soldiers were beginning to be deployed on European soil as Germany started mounting heavy offensives in hopes to attain some advantage on the borders. The war was taking a heavy toll on both sides of the borders but then the unforeseen happened. Soldiers started getting sick with a disease with symptoms almost exactly similar to that of the disease reported at Camp Funston about two months ago. No soldier, not the ones on the frontline nor the ones at the back of the trenches were safe anymore. We find evidence of it in the Official History of the 82nd Division. The 82nd Division of the U.S. Army was one of the few military divisions that did not see any action in the war. Even they reported "The Flu" among their fellow men during their days overseas. Due to the war, the media in most of the participating nations such as Germany, America, Britain, and France were highly censored and revised by Government officials so as to prevent panic, protection of state secrecy, and also for political reasons. This, however, was not the case with Spain. Soon after the first bout of the disease in Sierra Lione, France, the virus rapidly spread across the war-torn continent and found it's way into Spain. Due to the uncensored media in Spain, which was a non-participant in the war, a large number of cases of the deadly flu were reported which led to many people (and collectively speaking, nations) falsely presuming that Spain was the epicenter of the outbreak and thus came the name, "The Spanish Flu". It did not help the reputation of Spain when King Alfonso XIII became severely ill with similar symptoms and the name became ever-more popular.

The Second Wave

The war was practically over by August and the German troops were forced back to the Hindenberg line by the Allied offensive on August 8 which Erich Ludendorff famously named the "black day" for the German army. As ships filled with American soldiers returning home docked into the U.S. harbors, the soldier carried with them the very disease that threatened their brethren's lives in the trenches. The second wave of the Spanish Flu in the U.S., India, and China started around September. The second wave of the Spanish Flu began in the U.S. at Camp Devens near Boston, where soldiers at the training camp were falling sick to the disease since early September. By the end of the month more than 14,000 cases were reported from the camp with nearly 757 deaths. The war ended on September 11, 1918, with Allied Victory over the Axis. By the end of October, the entire country was affected by the virus with Philadelphia reporting the largest number of cases. This was largely attributed to the Victory Parade that was held in the city with thousands of onlookers most of whom discovered they had contracted the disease soon after. The lack of initiative from the authorities at Philadelphia and the ignorance of the people serve as a cautionary tale for epidemic awareness to date. More than 500 corpses awaited burial at the Philadelphia cemeteries, some cold for over a week. Our dear old Camp Funston was no exception to this as it saw a second wave of influenza in October when the 29th Field Artillery fell victim to the virus with nearly 861 deaths. In the book, Pandemic 1918 by Catherine Arnold we find an account from the same Lieutenant Elizabeth Harding, who was there when Patient Zero first reported to her infirmary with the disease about this second wave. She recalls that by this time she was an experienced senior nurse who had, in her own words, 'dealt with over 800 cases of mumps, measles, smallpox, diphtheria, and every conceivable contagious disease'. Wow, talk about a super-nurse! She was promoted to an Office of Surgeon General outside of Fort Riley but she left detail about the conditions at the Fort before she left -

"The day I left there were over 5,000 patients. Barracks were opened at Camp Funston to accommodate the sick. Several nurses died, I am not certain, but it seems to me at least sixteen. The nurses who had been on duty at Fort Riley stood up very well, but nurses who were rushed in for the emergency were hit hard, and arrived sick."

The image gallery above depicts the conditions prevailing in the country at the time. People were wearing masks waiting in lines for food and supplies at San Fransico, riots broke out throughout the world and mass graves were dug up in the cemeteries across the country.

The Flu business

Public Health officials sanctioned education programs to warn the public about the symptoms of the virus and how to ensure the containment of the disease. Any symptoms bearing similarity to those of the flu were to be reported to the health department and patients showing even the slightest symptoms were to be quarantined immediately. The days were fearful and the morale of the masses was down. And as with any other event businessmen were looking for opportunities to turn a profit from the weakened mentality of the masses. We hear stories about foretellers selling items at shops that they claimed would prevent the disease from entering the house of the owners and some more legitimate (but still not true) claims about food that helped cure the disease. One of the popular mentions in this category is that of Pluto Water. It was a very popular drink in the U.S. at the time. It was a natural water product with high contents of mineral salt and the active ingredients marked as sodium and magnesium. The name came from the spring from which the water was bottled, the Pluto Spring which sat on the site of the French Lick Spring-Summer Resort that opened in the 1890s on a local railway in Indiana. The company advertised the laxative contents of their product as a healer of The Spanish Flu over and over again. While it was true that it was "America's Physic", we cannot verify the fact that it had anything to do with curing the flu. This was an example of a harmless ad that didn't negatively affect people as such, but there were more not-so-harmless false ads running around as well that helped the virus foster rather than eradicating it.

The origins

The flu began to subside late into the next year with a few minor outbreaks interspersed across the country during the fall. It was not until the year 2020 that fewer than a hundred cases of influenza were reported throughout the nation and the disease was thought to be completely eradicated. This was, however, not true, as we learn from the H1N1 outbreak as recent as the 2009 Swine Flu. Yes, the Swine Flu which threatened the lives of so many just a decade ago was caused by a strain similar to that of the Spanish Flu virus and if not for the advancement of medical science over the years and the efforts of some great minds to study the mostly forgotten Spanish Flu between those years, we would have been, quite frankly, caught with our pants down once again. We discuss the story about the discovery of the H1N1 virus and the research thereafter in The Spanish Flu, 1918 - Part Two. But before we close the discussion, let's take another look at all the facts available to us, and maybe we can come to some form of consensus about the origins of this virus.

We have said that the first victim of the Spanish Flu, i.e, Patient Zero was Private Albert M. Gitchell. We find some accounts of the person online and even a photo of his parents at their house so we know the narrative about the person could be true. However, we have no way of knowing if he actually was Patient Zero. This is because there were many cases of flu-like contagious diseases in the camps even before March 11, 1918, and most of them were shrugged off as cases of cold. Miss Harding herself says that she dealt with similar cases ever since she arrived at Camp Funston as a Junior Nurse.

There are theories surrounding the fact that these training camps were breeding grounds for many contagious diseases due to the cleanliness and unhygienic standards of living at the time due to the war. It is also sometimes attributed to the fact that these camps saw a gathering of men from various different parts of the country, each with their own ways and customs and from every sect of society, and some of them might have carried the disease with them. This, however, is unlikely to be the sole cause of the pandemic and we can find more plausible explanations overseas. The theory that most scientists agree upon these days is that the disease started out as a mild strain of an influenza virus. As we all know that influenza is not caused by any single virus and we cannot know for sure, all the viruses that cause influenza, we cannot pinpoint the exact virus that started the outbreak at Camp Funston. Soon thereafter, it was carried overseas by the young soldiers deployed there during the war. The great thing (or the terrible thing) about viruses is that they mutate. And this must have been the case in the filthy, dimly-lit, uninhabitable trenches of the Great War where the virus found it's paradise and thrived. The foreign soldiers who came in contact with the enemy naturally contracted the disease and helped spread it across the continent all the way into Spain, China, and Asia where it first came to notice. This is backed by the fact that there is a lot of stories surrounding a generic disease now known as the "Trench Fever". This infamous "Trench Fever" is actually not a particular disease but a plethora of diseases that the men in the trenches suffered and died from. As the medics were too busy attending to the wounded from the battlefield there was little time to ascertain exactly what the diseases were and therefore were often left unknown. This new virulent strain that developed during the war was probably the one that the soldiers returning from the war brought home with them and caused the second (and more devastating) wave of influenza throughout the country. In support of this, we find that the number of deaths from the 1918 strain was much less than those from the 1919 strain and even the patterns exhibit those of a much more virulent strain. The most bizarre tale in all of this is that the virus found it's way even to the most unreasonable parts of the world after the war and we find a village in Alaska where people died from the disease in massive numbers and were buried soon after the war. This proved to be of immense importance in the discovery of the virus that wreaked havoc at the peak of the pandemic and to know more about the mass grave at Brevig Mission and the work of Johan Hultin, read our next article, The Spanish Flu, 1918 - Part Two. We hope you enjoyed our article and if you did, definitely consider subscribing to our blog to support us.

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