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 world.
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 today.