Ten Interesting Facts About the 1918 Flu Pandemic

The Flu Ward at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C., during the 1918–19 epidemic
The Flu Ward at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C., during the 1918–19 epidemic
The Flu Ward at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C., during the 1918–19 epidemic. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The Spanish Flu wreaked havoc on an unsuspecting audience between the years of 1918 and 1919. While flu viruses are common, this particular strain proved deadly—and was an eerie foreshadowing of things to come. Here are some interesting facts about the Spanish Flu pandemic.

1. The Virus Killed About 50 Million People

In 1918 alone, the Spanish Flu claimed the lives of 675,000 Americans—or about 0.64% of the US population at the time. And within the first six months of the virus’s discovery, 25 million people around the world had died. It is estimated that half a billion people had been infected.

2. It Did Not Originate in Spain

To this day, the origin of the disease is still contested. Suggestions have included France, the UK, China, and the American Midwest.

3. There Was Virtually No Immunization Available

In 1918, immunization was simply not an option for treatment. Scientists believe that the reason some people were protected from the virus was that they had prior exposure to milder strains of influenza.

4. The Initial Pandemic Wave Wasn’t as Severe as the Second Wave

During the first half of the virus’s attack, death rates were relatively low. It wasn’t until the second wave, occurring between October and December of 1918, that the highest mortality rates were recorded. Why? By this time, people with milder symptoms stayed indoors, but those with severe cases crowded into public hospitals and camps.

5. The Final Numbers Continue to Baffle Experts

“We know how many people died of the flu, but we don’t know how many contracted the flu and survived,” said Matthew T. Reitzel, manuscript archivist for the South Dakota State Historical Society-Archives. “It appears you had two outcomes if you contracted the flu—either you died within three days to a week, or you lived.”

6. Flu Deaths Ended Abruptly After About a Year

New cases of Spanish Flu began to drop suddenly near the end of 1918. One theory holds that the virus simply mutated rapidly into a less lethal strain—a common occurrence with influenza viruses.

7. It Wiped out a Large Population of Native Americans

In the Four Corners region of the US—Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah—there were an estimated 3,500 deaths registered in Native American communities. This is generally attributed to the fact that such groups were segregated (on reservations) and had limited exposure to common colds and flu, making them particularly susceptible.

8. The First World War Likely Aided in the Virus’s Spread

Masses of men and boys huddled together in cramped quarters—in barracks, on ships, in trenches—across regions of North America and Europe likely exacerbated the global reach of the virus.

9. It Took 87 Years to Determine the Virus’s Gene Sequence

Researchers in 2005 used the gene sequence to uncover new clues as to what made the virus so lethal. The contagion was recovered from the body of a flu victim buried in the permafrost of Alaska.

10. It Did Not Get the Press Coverage It Deserved

Unlike today, news outlets were reluctant to plaster grim facts across their banner headlines. Probably because many of them didn’t have a lot of facts. However, public health officials, law enforcement officers, and politicians everywhere underscored the virus’s severity to avoid public panic.