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Famous People Who Survived The Spanish Flu

April 2, 2020 12.1k views28 items

The first recorded case of what would be labeled the Spanish flu came in March 1918 at an Army training facility in Fort Riley, KS. By the time the influenza pandemic came to an end in December 1920, an estimated 500 million people - more than one-quarter of the world's population at the time - had been infected. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere from 17 to 50 million, with some believing it could actually be as high as 100 million. 

This disease did not discriminate. It infected the young and the old, men and women, the healthy and those with underlying health issues. But counted among the pandemic's survivors are a number of famous people. Among the celebrities who came down with, but survived, the Spanish flu were world leaders such as Woodrow Wilson, Hollywood stars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, and authors Franz Kafka and John Steinbeck.

Who would have guided the United States through the Depression and WWII if FDR had perished in the pandemic? How would England have changed if King George V and his 24-year-old son Edward had taken over the throne? Would Steinbeck have ever written The Grapes of Wrath if he hadn't contracted the Spanish flu as a teenager - an event that reportedly changed his view of life? And would Mickey Mouse have ever existed if a teenaged Walt Disney had not survived his bout with the virus? These are just a few of the questions we can ask about how the 1918-1920 Spanish influenza pandemic could have affected the future.

  • Photo: Underwood and Underwood / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1918, about one year after Amelia Earhart moved to Toronto to be a volunteer nurse's assistant, the Spanish flu pandemic hit the Canadian city. As Earhart assisted with influenza patients in her work, it's unsurprising that she fell victim to the virus herself. She developed pneumonia and her condition became so severe that she had to undergo surgery to drain an infection from her sinus cavity. This illness led to her decision to try to become a doctor; she enrolled at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, but soon changed her mind about pursuing medicine. The operation was not entirely successful, as Earhart suffered from sinus problems for the rest of her life.

    In March 1919, Earhart wrote to a friend who had recently recovered from the Spanish flu, admitting, "I hate and fear it [the Spanish flu], somehow more than a little. Having seen so much of it, I suppose, has prejudiced me - with the very uncertainty of treatment adding to the prejudice."

    One notable caveat: Although Earhart herself believed she had contracted the Spanish flu, not all historians believe it was that virus that caused her health problems in 1918.

    • Birthplace: Atchison, Kansas
  • Photo: Unattributed / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Franz Kafka spent much of his life worrying about his health. Even before coming down with the Spanish flu, he had spent time in sanitoriums for various ailments. In 1917, he developed the first signs of tuberculosis, an illness he believed was the result of a battle between good and evil within himself.

    In October 1918, his health was further damaged when he contracted the Spanish flu. He recovered well enough to return to his job at the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in November, only to suffer a relapse just four days after resuming work. Kafka disliked traditional medicine and its pharmaceutical treatments, but was forced to overcome his suspicions in order to seek help. He was unable to work very much over the following years, as he spent long months in sanatoriums. Even after he recovered from the influenza, his tuberculosis gradually worsened over the next few years until he expired in 1924 at age 40.

    • Age: Dec. at 40 (1883-1924)
    • Birthplace: Prague, Czech Republic
  • Mary Pickford was one of the biggest stars of the silent film era. She was so popular that when she became ill with the Spanish flu in January 1919, the Los Angeles daily newspapers reported on how her recovery was progressing.

    The actress was able to make a relatively quick recovery, as Daddy Long Legs, which she wrote, produced, and starred in, was released in May 1919.

    • Age: Dec. at 87 (1892-1979)
    • Birthplace: Toronto, Canada
  • Photo: Edvard Munch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Throughout Edvard Munch's career, much of his artwork showcased his interest in the idea of his own mortality. The artist was in his mid-50s when he was afflicted by the Spanish flu in 1919.

    He composed several self-portraits detailing his illness and asked one visitor whether he could "sense the smell" from one called Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu. Realizing the visitor was confused by his question, the artist elaborated by querying, "Can't you see I'm almost on the point of decomposing?"

    • Age: Dec. at 80 (1863-1944)
    • Birthplace: Ådalsbruk, Løten, Norway