A scourge on the scale of the Black
Death plague that ravaged Europe in 1350 struck virtually
the entire world in 1918. The deadly virus, known as the
Spanish flu, infected one-third of the world's population,
killing anywhere from 20 to 100 million people worldwide.
(It was called the Spanish flu, to Spain's dismay, because
one of the first places to be stricken was San Sebastian, a
sunny tourist town on the north coast.) 28 percent of all
Americans got the flu, and about 600,000 of them died.
Nobody knew where the disease came from, and theories abound
to this day. Since the first American cases were on the East
coast (Boston), rumors of German germ warfare emerged.
Believing that it spread by contagion, the Minneapolis
Health Department ordered streetcar windows to stay open and
shut down schools, theaters, churches, etc. until that
December. Other (discredited) theories blame burning manure
at a Kansas Army base or a mutation from a bird virus into
pigs and then into people.
But in fact, the virus died if outside the body, and
experiments showed that it was not spread person-to-person.
In addition, it hit every corner of the world within a week,
from Eskimo villages to South Africa (only Australia and
some other remote islands escaped), leading scientists to
theorize that it was somehow living dormant.
The first strain, which circulated in March and April of
1918, was debilitating, especially to the troops in American
bases and fighting in Europe, but most recovered in about
three days. Instead of targeting babies and the elderly, it
was especially prevalent with young people ages 20 to 40,
leading to one theory that it only struck those who were
exposed to the 1890 flu as babies, or that the disease was
akin to the chicken pox, which is a mild children's disease
but much more dangerous to adults. Those who had had the
disease in the spring were immune to the fall strain.
In September a different, deadly strain appeared. In Gina
Kolata's book Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza
Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It
(1999), the disease is described in gruesome detail:
You might notice a dull headache. Your eyes might
start to burn. You start to shiver and you will take to
your bed, curling up in a ball. But no amount of
blankets can keep you warm. You fall into a restless
sleep, dreaming the distorted nightmares of delirium as
your fever climbs. And when you drift out of sleep, into
a sort of semi-consciousness, your muscles will ache and
your head will throb... Your face turns a dark brownish
purple. You start to cough up blood. Your feet turn
black. Finally, as the end nears, you frantically gasp
for breath. A blood-tinged saliva bubbles out of your
mouth. You die - by drowning, actually - as your lungs
fill with a reddish fluid...your lungs [are] lying heavy
and sodden in your chest, engorged with a thin bloody
liquid, useless, like slabs of liver.
The first case of the influenza in Minnesota was reported
on September 25, 1918. The first officially reported
came from Wabasha two days later. On September 28,
reports were coming in from all parts of Minnesota.
More than a thousand cases were reported in Minneapolis
alone - less than a week later. The U of M postponed
fall classes. The Red Cross mobilized on October 8.
On October 11, Dr. H.M. Guilford, head of the Minneapolis
Department of Health, shut down the city. Included
were all schools, churches, theaters, dance halls, pool
halls, and the like.
The flu was devastating to troops fighting in Europe.
Chaplain (CDR) David Thompson, CHC, USNR (Ret.) has done
extensive research on the effects of the flu on the
military. "It was during the Meuse Argonne Campaign
when the pandemic hit the AEF in full force in
September-November 1918, killing over 20,000 in this
campaign. Another 30,000 died in training camps in the
US. This flu pandemic accounted for over 50 percent of
all WW I dead (40 percent with the AEF in France...20,000
American soldiers and 60 percent in training camps in the
US...30,000 American soldiers) amounting to 52,199 WW I
soldiers dying in bed hemorrhaging to death of the flu, not
valiantly charging enemy trenches in France (50,280 died in
combat). The most common experience of WW I soldiers and
sailors was not combat, but rather suffering through or
dying from the Great Flu Pandemic in the Fall of 1918...at
the height of the Meuse Argonne Campaign in Europe."
Back in Minnesota, add to this the horrific wildfire that hit northern
Minnesota on October 12, 1918. High winds combined
many smaller fires into an inferno that literally
incinerated the towns in its path, including Arnold, Automba,
Brookston, Cloquet, Kaleval, Kettle River, Lawler, Lester
Park, Moose Lake, and Woodland. Many others were
damaged. 453 people and tens of thousands of animals
died and many more suffered burns. Duluth only escaped
certain destruction when the wind suddenly reversed
direction - with nothing left to burn, the fire died.
The Spanish Flu hit this area of Minnesota one week later,
testing the medical resources of the State severely.
By March 1919, 1,111 Minneapolis residents had died of
the flu. At
Minneapolis General, all non-flu patients were moved to
private hospitals, and for six weeks, 1,115 patients were
treated; nearly one in four died. It abated for awhile but
returned the next winter. The disease managed to
kill 7,521Minnesotans in 1918 and more than 4,200 over the
course of the following two years. In 1917 it infected 25.8
million Americans out of a population of 105 million and killed an estimated
650,000 in the US, and perhaps up to 100 million around the
The flu ended only because anyone who had survived it was
immune to it, and the gene would have to mutate or die.
In the 1990s, scientists tried to resurrect the 1918 virus
in order to study it with modern procedures and equipment.
Eventually three samples were found: two that Army doctors
had preserved and had been stored in a warehouse for years,
and one that was obtained from an obese woman buried in the
permafrost in Brevik, Alaska. Scientists continue to work
with these samples and their genetic information, and no
definitive answer has yet been found.
There are still no cures for viruses, and the only
protection against the flu is a vaccine. Flu vaccines were
developed in the 1930s, although smaller outbreaks occurred
in 1957 and 1968. Despite the
Swine Flu debacle of 1976, yearly flu shots are routine
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