- Historic Sites
The Greats Wine Flu Epidemic Of 1918
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
In the last week of October, 1918, 2,700 Americans died “over there” in battle against the kaiser’s army. The same week 21,000 Americans died of influenza in the United States.
The epidemic was by then raging over most of the populated globe, yet where the outbreak had begun was unclear. Some medical men blamed Chinese workers brought to France to dig trenches. A Spanish medical commission proved, at least to its own satisfaction, that the sickness had originated in Russian Turkestan. The Russians, and most of the world, attributed it to Spain. Months before, an influenza epidemic had swept that country like a tidal wave, afflicting eight million people. This earlier outbreak had been mild, however, with few if any deaths directly resulting from it. But, fairly or not, the deadly contagion now gripping the world became known as the Spanish influenza.
To the extent that the origins of this medical forest fire could be traced anywhere, the best evidence pointed to the United States. The previous March a severe dust storm had obscured the sun at Fort Riley, Kansas. Some nine thousand tons of manure were burned every month at this prairie cavalry post, continuously mantling the area in a malodorous haze. The storm winds had whipped up a stinging blizzard of dust and smoke that sent soldiers stumbling, coughing, and choking to the refuge of their barracks.
Two days after the storm had ceased, an army cook named Albert Gitchell reported to the post hospital, complaining of fever, sore throat, and various aches and pains. Minutes later another soldier checked in with the same symptoms. The count had jumped to 107 similarly afflicted patients by midday; by week’s end, 522; and before the sickness ran its course five weeks later, 1,127 men had been stricken. Forty-six of them died. The base surgeon diagnosed the sickness as influenza, although pneumonia was blamed for the deaths. In May of 1918 the Army’s 89th and 92nd divisions finished their training at Fort Riley and sailed for France.
Soon after the 92nd Division disembarked at Brest and Saint-Nazaire, French poilus began to fall ill with influenza. British soldiers in France carried the disease back to England. Influenza spread through the Royal Navy like flames on an oil slick. Over 10,000 British tars were laid low, confining the fleet to port. The disease rolled across France and into Germany, where eventually 160,000 Berliners came down with the flu. It erupted halfway around the world, sweeping across China, India, and most of Asia—whether carried from Europe or appearing independently no one knew.
On August 12, four months after the men from Fort Riley had sailed for France, a Norwegian liner, the Bergensfjord , picked its way slowly through the fog of New York Harbor and tied up at the army base in Brooklyn. Passengers streamed down the gangway as quickly as they could escape the ship. The voyage had been a nightmare. Four of their fellow passengers had died on board and had been given a speedy burial at sea. The dead were among 100 passengers on the Bergensfjord stricken with influenza.
Bells clanged along the dock as ambulances rushed semiconscious patients to Brooklyn’s Norwegian Hospital. There, hours later, the disease claimed its fifth victim from the Bergensfjord , a Mrs. Olsen, the first person to die in America from the latest recurrence of influenza. The plague had apparently come full circle.
An influenza epidemic was hardly a medical novelty. In 412 B.C. Hippocrates recorded an outbreak, closely resembling influenza, that had wiped out an Athenian army. Since then fairly serious outbreaks apparently occurred approximately every hundred years. Influenza had surfaced in American history at Valley Forge (George Washington came down with the flu during the winter of 1779) and again during the Civil War. The name of the disease, derived from the Italian word for “influence,” suggests its intangible and mysterious quality; and since the disease is caused by a virus, it is still mysterious.
Though influenza had intermittently struck hard in the past, its behavior in the years prior to 1918 had been relatively tame. As a cause of death influenza ranked about tenth, well behind heart disease, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and cancer. Yet by the fall of 1918 it had become apparent that this outbreak was a first-rate killer. On October 1, 202 persons died in Boston from influenza. On October 6 Philadelphia posted a grim milestone, 289 flu deaths in twenty-four hours—the highest mortality that had ever been recorded in that city’s history. At an emergency meeting in New York City the Henry Street Settlement House reported that of 170 women on the settlement house’s visiting-nurse staff, 31 had already-fallen prey to the disease.