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Famous People Who Survived The Spanish Flu

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: Alan Fisher / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Walt Disney was just 16 years old when he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps on September 16, 1918. He chose the Ambulance Corps because he was too young to enlist in any of the armed forces (the minimum age was 17). When his father refused to sign the enlistment papers for the Ambulance Corps, his mother forged his name, and Disney changed the year of his birth to 1900 (he was actually born in 1901).

    He was assigned to do his training at Camp Scott in Chicago, but returned home after he came down with the Spanish flu. He and his sister Ruth were nursed back to health by their mother, despite her also contracting the virus. By the time he recovered, his ambulance unit had already shipped out to France.

    Disney did eventually get sent to France as an ambulance driver, but it was after the Armistice had been signed.

    • Age: Dec. at 65 (1901-1966)
    • Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois, USA
  • The Spanish influenza of 1918-1920 reportedly claimed about 6% of India's total population. As he admitted to a friend, "All interest in living [had] ceased" for the 48-year-old Mahatma Gandhi after he contracted the virus in 1918 while staying at an ashram in Gujarat.

    Although he was too feverish to speak or read, he rejected most of the medical advice given to him, and his recovery was slowed when he developed pneumonia. The newspaper Praja Bandhu criticized Gandhi's reluctance to listen to the doctors' advice, stating, "Mr. Gandhi's life does not belong to him - it belongs to India."

    • Age: Dec. at 78 (1869-1948)
    • Birthplace: Porbandar, India
  • Photo: Bain-Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    It's estimated that more than 600,000 Americans succumbed to the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920. The White House was not immune from the disease. In the fall of 1918, Woodrow Wilson's personal secretary, his eldest daughter Margaret, and some members of the Secret Service all fell ill with the virus.

    But it was months before the president himself became infected. In April 1919, shortly after arriving in France for the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson came down with a fever and suffered coughing fits. His condition deteriorated quickly - so quickly that his personal physician initially believed the president had been poisoned. Wilson was bedridden for much of the peace talks and reportedly acted quite strangely. In A. Scott Berg's biography, Wilson, the author wrote that the usually predictable president started issuing odd orders and believed he was surrounded by spies.

    Although the president survived the virus, he suffered a major stroke just four months later. His health continued to deteriorate until his passing in 1924.

    • Age: Dec. at 67 (1856-1924)
    • Birthplace: Staunton-Waynesboro, VA Micropolitan Statistical Area, Staunton city, Contiguous United States, United States of America
  • Photo: National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt

    In 1918, Franklin Delano Roosevelt held the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In the summer of that year, he traveled to France on a fact-finding mission and to visit the front. In September, he headed back to the US, but developed double pneumonia on the boat trip and had to be taken by ambulance from the USS Leviathan when it docked in New York.

    The New York Times described Roosevelt's illness as a "slight attack of pneumonia" caused by the Spanish flu and reported he had been taken to his mother's home in New York City, where his recovery was progressing favorably.