- Historic Sites
The Greats Wine Flu Epidemic Of 1918
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
Lieutenant Colonel Philip Doane, who was in charge of the health and sanitation section of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, a merchant-ship auxiliary set up during the war, speculated: “We know that men have been ashore from German submarine boats. It would be quite easy for one of these German agents to turn loose Spanish influenza germs in a theatre or some place where large numbers of persons are assembled.”
A rumor spread swiftly that a group of medical-corps officers and nurses at Gamp Hancock, New Jersey, had been lined up before a firing squad and executed as German spies. They had been convicted, word had it, of spreading influenza by hypodermic injection of the troops. The story proved so stubborn that the Army’s acting surgeon general, Brigadier General Charles Richard, felt compelled to issue a denial: “The reports are ridiculous and without the slightest foundation in fact.” Another story had German agents holed up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, brewing batches of influenza germs.
In the latter part of October the Spanish-influenza epidemic whipped to a furious crescendo. The week of October 23 witnessed the death of 21,000 Americans, the highest mortality toll ever recorded in America at any time for any cause. In the state of New York alone 45,000 people had perished since the outbreak began. On October 23, 851 people died in New York City of influenza, the highest daily figure ever registered there. For days the number of deaths held at the 800 level. An even more staggering loss took place in Philadelphia. In the previous week 5,270 had died, a rate 700 times above normal. Of these deaths all but a few hundred were attributed to influenza and related pneumonia.
Then, with the beginning of November, the plague began to pass as inexplicably as it had arrived. The number of new influenza cases plummeted. In Philadelphia the city’s health chief declared that the epidemic “has ceased to exist officially,” so the bars were reopened—and almost immediately 53 persons were arrested for disorderly conduct and drunkenness. In Washington, President Wilson was in the audience as B. F. Keith’s theatre resumed with a new show, An American Ace . “Flo-Flo” and her “Perfect 36” chorus ended their emergency work in a Washington hospital and took up their accustomed vocation in Chicago. In homes across America windows were flung open, floors scrubbed, rugs aired, and face masks tossed out, and various flu remedies were shoved to the back of the medicine cabinet.
Thus, with an irony that surpasses man’s understanding, the plague faded almost simultaneously with the ending of the Great War. Except for a few belated stabs into remote corners of the earth, the worst of the Spanish-influenza epidemic was over. It seemed almost as though nature had determined to show man who still reigned supreme in the giving and taking of life: the war had killed over 21 million people in four years of dogged conflict; the influenza epidemic took approximately the same toll in about four months.
In all history there had been no sterner, swifter visitation of death. The plague of Justinian, beginning in the year A.D. 542, had supposedly claimed 100 million lives—but it endured for fifty years. The bubonic plague, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, was said to have taken a quarter of Europe’s population, 25 million lives, and another 37 million more in the East; it lasted for three years. Spanish influenza held sway for about a hundred and twenty days. Mathematically, had the epidemic continued its rate of acceleration, humanity would have been eradicated in a matter of months.
In the United States the final reckoning was 548,452 lives lost. Nearly ten times as many Americans died in those few weeks of pestilence as had been killed in eighteen months of war. Modern vital statistics provide an illuminating comparison. In 1978, for every 100,000 persons in the population, 167 died of cancer and 494 of heart-related disease. In 1918 the comparable figure for those dying of influenza and related pneumonia was 588, a mortality rate for this country never approached before or since.
Insurance-company actuarial tables were left a shambles by the epidemic. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company paid out over $ 18 million to beneficiaries of 85,000 policies in a few months. No company in the history of insurance had ever experienced a remotely comparable drain of assets.
The precise cause of this scourge was never positively identified at the time. Not until fifteen years later did a group of British researchers succeed in infecting laboratory animals with influenza germs. This advance made it possible, for the first time, to study the disease and to develop preventive approaches. At the same time it was discovered that the germ entered the body solely through the nasal passages. And in 1943, using the newly-developed electron microscope, a team of U.S. researchers finally saw an influenza virus, a miniature cottonlike ball so small that 30 million would fit on the head of a pin. Still, this virus was only a particular influenza strain and not necessarily the killer of 1918.