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Flu Pandemic of 1918

This monument at Fort Riley was built for Sanitary Train soldiers who died during the flu epidemicIn 1918 the United States was involved in World War I, and also with an outbreak of a deadly influenza pandemic. Although there are numerous theories about the original of this influenza strain, many researchers believe that the first cases of the outbreak were recorded in Haskell County, Kansas, and Fort Riley, Kansas, where young men were being hospitalized for severe flu-like symptoms. A local doctor sent a report to the Public Health Service, but no one was sent to investigate the situation. On March 4, 1918, an outbreak appeared at Fort Riley, with as many as 500 soldiers hospitalized within a week. Within a month, the number of patients dwindled and it seemed that the flu had passed its course.

Many of these soldiers were sent to Europe to help fight in World War I. While in Europe the disease mutated and became deadly. By May many reports of soldiers falling ill were reaching the U.S. It did not take long for the disease to spread from the soldiers to the civilian population of Europe, and then around the world. Few areas remained unaffected, and there were recorded outbreaks in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, as well as the Arctic and remote Pacific Islands. 

The pandemic 1918 was called the Spanish influenza. Historians believe this name came from the lack of media censure in Spain when the disease hit. The virus returned to the U.S.; by August, more deaths were reported in Boston, Massachusetts. In September outbreaks were reported in California and Texas. By October 1918, 24 countries reported cases of influenza; many of these countries were reporting deaths. Doctors noted that this influenza was different from other strains of the flu because it passed from person to person and it targeted a different age group. Earlier flu strains  were known to affect the very young, the elderly, and those without strong immune systems. The majority of victims in this pandemic were aged from 20 to 40 and were typically healthy individuals; pregnant women seemed to be the most vulnerable.

A temporary hospital set up in Oakland, California for patients of the flu epidemicIn fall 1918 a form of the disease returned to Kansas and government officials were quick to take action against the spread of the disease. Dr. Samuel J. Crumbine was the secretary of the state board of health and began a campaign to keep the public in Kansas well aware and educated about the flu and what people could do to prevent it. However, despite these measures there were still hundreds of deaths reported in Kansas, and eventually health officers were forced to close individual cities. By closing schools, public gatherings, theaters, church services, and limiting the number of people in a store at a time, the government officials in Kansas hoped to limit the outbreak and prevent more people from becoming sick.

Another wave of the epidemic returned in spring 1919; many believed this strain to be more severe. Reports said people could wake up healthy and be dead by nightfall. By the end of spring the number of influenza patients dropped so that official bans were lifted in cities and states; people resumed to school, church, and other activities. Since the disease occurred during World War I, the epidemic's toll was often overshadowed.

This pandemic of the 1918-1919 was believed to be responsible for an estimated 17.4 million deaths worldwide, although there is no official tally. The influenza led to 675,000 deaths in the United States, and caused twice the number of casualties for the U.S. during World War I (both killed and wounded), which totaled near 323,000.

Entry: Flu Pandemic of 1918

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2012

Date Modified: October 2021

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.