The Greats Wine Flu Epidemic Of 1918


In 1951 Dr. Albert P. McKee of the State University of Iowa led a research team to Alaska on an ingenious course of inquiry that held out great promise of finally unmasking the killer virus. The scientists exhumed the bodies of several Eskimos who had died during the 1918 epidemic. Their bodies, buried inside the permafrost line, were well preserved. The researchers sliced lung sections from these longgone victims and sent the tissue back to Iowa City, hoping that laboratory animals could be infected if the virus were still partially animated. If this happened, the virus could then be isolated and identified. But whatever germ had killed these Eskimos in 1918 had disappeared. The mystery persisted.


Researchers did learn later that influenza is caused by viruses possessing a remarkable capacity for change. The Australian microbiologist Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnet concluded: “Of all the virus diseases, influenza is probably that in which mutational changes in the virus are of greatest human importance … the influenza virus’ chief means of survival is its capacity for constant mutation. …” The influenza-virus particle, a speck of nucleic acid in a “protein coat,” is capable of continually rearranging its structure to form new strains.

This mutability may explain the savagery of the 1918 outbreak, along with another kind of adaptability possessed by the virus. Ten years after the epidemic a virologist at the Rockefeller Institute, Dr. Richard Shope, concluded that a mild hog virus acting in combination with another equally mild human influenza virus may have produced a virulent new strain. Two sicknesses, by themselves merely discomforting, may have been fused through a kind of viral synergism to produce the deadliest plague in human history. Most influenza experts eventually agreed that the sickness of the swine and that of human beings were somehow linked in the great epidemic of 1918.


Could it happen again? Virologists say Yes. If animal and human viruses joined disastrously before, they could do so again. Given the rapid spread of such a disease, given the time required to identify the new invader, to devise an effective vaccine, and to immunize the population, it is conceivable that another epidemic could strike with the same force. However, vaccine research is actively under way; and in any event medical scientists believe that modern drugs and better medical care overall would prevent death on the horrifying scale of the 1918 plague.

As for that viral holocaust, the most able medical men of the time admitted that all their efforts had probably not limited the epidemic by an hour. One doctor called it the medical catastrophe of all time. Why it began, why it ended, where it went, no one knows to this day. Like a malign comet, the Spanish-influenza epidemic of 1918 sped over the earth, took 21 million lives, and vanished.