19 Horrifying Facts and Events of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920

19 Horrifying Facts and Events of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920

By Larry Holzwarth

One of the deadliest natural disasters in history was the Spanish Flu pandemic which struck near the end of the First World War and eventually infected 500 million people around the globe. At least 50 million, and possibly up to 100 million people died as a result of the pandemic, which can be put in context of being five percent of the global population at the time of its outbreak. In comparison about 37 million soldiers and civilians died in World War One. In the United States alone the pandemic lowered the average life expectancy by twelve years.

A drawing of the Naples Soldier, a metaphor for the Spanish Flu in Spain where it first became publicly known. Wikimedia

The pandemic leapfrogged across oceans, breaking out in isolated islands of the Pacific, and in remote settlements above the Arctic Circle. Unlike other flu epidemics, which normally cause increased mortality among the elderly and the very young who were too weak to resist it, the Spanish Flu killed young adults, most of whom were of good health before being stricken. Ironically, researchers speculate that the disease caused an overreaction of the body’s immune system, which is what caused the deaths of those with strong immune systems and allowed the survival of those whose immune system was weaker. Here is the story of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of the early 20th century.

A Spanish Influenza ward in the United States when the pandemic was at its height. CDC

1. The pandemic in Europe seemingly began at a troop staging center in France late in 1917

Etaples, near the Pas de Calais in Northern France, was a major troop staging center and military hospital during the First World War. It was crowded with both new troops arriving in France from Great Britain and the United States and recovering wounded and sick men from the trenches. In late 1917 doctors began reporting a new respiratory illness. At the time around 100,000 soldiers transited the area every day, ensuring that those exposed to the illness would carry it to various destinations in France. The site was also the home to facilities for hogs and poultry, to prepare them for distribution to the troops, another conduit to transfer the disease among the crowded trenches and military facilities along the western front.

Another source for the disease was put forth in a theory postulated in the 21st century as the importation of laborers from China to work on infrastructure behind the lines of the French and British armies. The theory was based on the outbreak of an epidemic of flu with similar symptoms in Northern China in early 1917. Others theorize the outbreak began in the United States, and was carried to Europe by the arriving American doughboys in 1917. A century after the pandemic began there remained debate over its source and the cause of its rapid spread throughout the world, with competing theories, and even some conspiracy theorists attributing it to biological warfare.