RALEIGH — The recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa and the few recent infections in the United States have alarmed many Americans. Considering how modern transportation and technology have made the wide world into a smaller place, Americans should be concerned.
The Ebola crisis, although different, reminded me of the flu pandemic that spread across the globe in 1918. There have been flu epidemics throughout history, but the one in 1918 was different. Although many Americans died from the 1890 flu virus, many survivors lived long enough to endure the 1918 pandemic.
The latter was decimating. Some researchers estimate that the airborne virus killed between 20 million and 40 million people around the globe in an age of modern transportation. (The exact number of worldwide deaths is difficult to know.) In the United States approximately 24 million caught the Spanish Influenza, as it was called, and in roughly six months approximately 600,000 died.
However, few history textbooks — I checked those on my office bookshelves — include even a mention of the devastating 1918 pandemic, a virus that killed more people than those who died during World War I, one of the most destructive conflicts in modern warfare.
Some textbooks entirely overlooked the flu pandemic. A few others had only a couple of sentences describing the pandemic, combining it and thereby equating the decimating virus with events such as the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal to prove that Americans lived through troubling and controversial times in 1918 and 1919. One textbook did have a lengthy section — approximately one page along with an informative graph on a subsequent page relaying the horrific effects of the pandemic.
Why the reticence regarding what one historian has called America’s “forgotten pandemic”? For one, many who lived through the nightmare wanted to forget the tragedy. Many knowledgeable firsthand observers, notably doctors, did not write memoirs of the experience.
Second, the horrid pandemic occurred while Western Civilization almost committed cultural suicide in World War I. In other words, it was one of many in a series of unfortunate events. Third, some scholars have speculated that the Spanish Influenza of 1918 is not discussed in depth because no great leader died from contracting the flu. (The first two are more plausible reasons.)
Another reason is that the flu pandemic of 1918 still baffles scientists. Unlike other flu viruses that preyed on those younger than 5, the elderly, and the ill, the 1918 flu attacked 20- to
40-year-olds. The outbreak occurred first in military camps, and many soldiers, in their physical prime, died in the United States while preparing to fight the Central Powers in Europe.
The victims died approximately five days after contracting the aggressive flu virus. Descriptions of the victims’ final days reveal a horrific end as the poor soul, with a gradually venous and discolored face, regressed from deliberate, heavy breathing, to gasping, and then essentially to drowning in his or her own fluids.
The first known case in America happened in Fort Riley, Kan., and a couple of months later, reports revealed that the influenza was infecting Europe. As the U.S. armed forces were deployed to Europe and as European forces traveled to and fro across the continent, the virus spread rapidly. (Some commanders, such as General Erich von Lundendorff, contended that the pandemic weakened the final German offensive in 1918.)
Meanwhile, in the United States, hopeful preventive measures were implemented — soldiers gargled with alcohol, hospital staff hung sheets between beds, and some municipalities passed ordinances requiring residents to wear gauze masks when in public places or using public transportation.
The flu virus disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, and the disappearance also baffles researchers. Let’s hope another “forgotten pandemic,” of any sort, does not attack the United States or anywhere else on the planet.
Dr. Troy Kickler is founding director of the North Carolina History Project.