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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Spanish Flu

This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the World War I armistice. While many will remember this year as the end of the First World War, many may not realize that this is also the centennial anniversary of something much deadlier than the Great War itself. This killer did not come in the form of a bullet, bomb or chemical weapon, but appeared at first as a simple flu virus. A century later, we can find testimonies from the people who directly witnessed this virus’s destruction.

Leo Baekeland, inventor of the first commercialized plastic, known as Bakelite, personally saw the virus in action. He wrote almost daily about life in 1918 and the end of the war in his diaries, which are part of the Leo H. Baekeland Papers in the Archives Center, National Museum of American History. He also made many entries revealing that some of his close friends were becoming severely sick from what he thought was just only the every-day flu virus. In his diary entry dated October 24th, Baekeland wrote, “Albert sick with influenza.” Baekeland’s November 3rd entry stated, “Albert and children better and out of bed, but now (his) wife is sick with pneumonia,” and by November 10th, Baekeland recorded, “Albert’s wife is dead.” A week after Albert’s wife died, Baekeland wrote that his maid, “Katie is buried this morning.” The severity of this flu virus must have become jarringly evident to Leo when he wrote, “From five who had influenza, two deaths!” But this was no average flu season.

Leo Baekeland’s diary entry explaining that he had lost two friends to the flu. Volume 25, pages 158-159, Baekeland’s personal diaries, Leo Baekeland Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.  Image #AC0005-D25-083.

This epidemic, better known as the Spanish Flu, became a pandemic viral outbreak that struck almost every corner of the world.  While World War I appeared to have brought the world to its knees in human costs, the losses the war brought paled in comparison to the toll the Spanish flu took, especially on the healthiest of the populations.

Most victims of influenza are of the youngest, oldest or most physically vulnerable groups, but this was not the case with the Spanish flu. This type of influenza began as a bird virus and for reasons unknown, mutated into something very different, making the jump from infecting birds to infecting humans. What made this virus so devastating was how it attacked the body. Unlike other viruses, the symptoms of the Spanish flu included nosebleeds, explosive hemorrhaging, air hunger and cyanosis (skin turning blue or black from lack of oxygen). In many cases, people literally suffocated to death. The Spanish flu further differed from other flu viruses in that it turned the autoimmune system into a weapon against the body; the stronger your immune system, the stronger the virus’s attack.  This is why over fifty percent of the deaths were of the healthiest people, ranging from 20 to 40 years old.

Leo Baekeland’s diary entry detailing the need for oxygen tanks for his sick friend’s wife. Volume 25, page 148, Baekeland’s personal diaries, Leo Baekeland Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Image #AC0005-D25-078.
The world being at war also helped vault this flu from an epidemic into a pandemic. It is believed to have started in the United States in the spring of 1918 and it quickly spread throughout the world with U.S. troop movements and deployments. As American military soldiers deployed to the war zones, they brought the virus wherever they went. Six months later, with the end of the war in the fall of that year, American and foreign soldiers returned back to their homelands, taking the virus from the battlefield to the home front. This created a perfect recipe for a pandemic disaster.

The legacy of World War I left a devastating impact, but the Spanish Flu would soon dwarf the war’s casualty count. Approximately 20 million people died as result of World War I, but the Spanish flu claimed fifty to possibly as many as 100 million lives. The continual national and international movement of troops only fueled the impact of the virus’s impact on a pandemic scale like no other flu in modern times. So as we remember the centennial of the end of World War I, we should note this is also the anniversary of one of the worst viral outbreaks of the modern age.

Joe Hursey, Reference Archivist,
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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