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Inside The Brutal Realities of the Spanish Flu That Killed 100 Million People

Updated April 22, 2020 71.7k views16 items

Of all the horrors of World War I, it wasn't the bombs, bullets, or even the mustard gas that ended up as the greatest killer. In reality, the act of moving that many people around the world turned out to be the most deadly fruit of war. The last year of the war, 1918, saw the most deadly pandemic the world has ever known. With all those millions of soldiers being shipped around the globe, it spread like wildfire.

This was the Spanish influenza pandemic. In terms of sheer numbers killed, the Spanish influenza beats out the Black Death as the king of historical epidemics. The statistics of the Spanish flu are just brutal, and the disease touched every corner of the globe. Survivors tell of heartbreaking scenes of misery and quarantine, and today the flu ranks as one of the worst diseases in history, a reminder of how deadly influenza can really be.

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  • They Couldn't Bury The Bodies Fast Enough

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The world's worst day is the undertaker's best day, but the booming coffin industry simply could not keep up with the staggering rate of death caused by the Spanish influenza. We're talking tens of thousands of people dying in a matter of a month or two...  in just about every big city around the world. To prevent the infectious bodies that were slowly rotting in the morgue corridors from causing secondary infections, many places restored to digging mass graves.

    In 2015, a mass grave was rediscovered in Pennsylvania. Located around 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the bodies were uncovered after a heavy rain washed away the topsoil near a highway embankment. There were no coffins, just human bones jutting up from the soil.

  • The War Had Created A Shortage Of Medical Staff

    Photo: St. Louis Post Dispatch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many of the trained medical personnel at the time the Spanish influenza struck had already joined up with the military to help the war effort. Even before America entered the war, many doctors and nurses volunteered to serve in field hospitals through the Red Cross. So when the flu hit, a great deal of those medical resources were tied up in the trenches of Europe.

    As a result, many of those tending for the sick at home were volunteers. They had varying degrees of experience in medicine, from retired doctors pulled back into service to medical students who were still in training.

    In some cases, women whose only medical experience was tending to their families found themselves nursing for entire communities. These volunteers risked and sometimes gave their lives caring for the infectious sick. In many cases, their care was the difference between life and death for flu victims.

  • In The US, Philadelphia Had The Highest Rate Of Sickness And Death

    Photo: National Museum of Health and Medicine / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Philadelphia really dropped the ball on this one. City officials knew about the second-wave outbreak of the flu in Boston; they had even issued a bulletin about the dangers of Spanish influenza as early as July, but they still figured that it was no big deal in late September of 1918. They didn't even have it listed as a reportable disease. Sh*t was about to get real.

    In late September, the public was getting mixed signals about the influenza problem. Assurances were made that the disease was contained to military personnel. Dr. Paul Lewis, director of the Philips Institute of Philadelphia announced that they had identified the cause of influenza (incorrectly of course). Then on September 28, the city threw a massive parade, of all things, where 200,000 people gathered to support the war effort. Within days, hundreds of new influenza cases were being reported. The city was forced to admit that they had a problem. Churches, schools, and theaters were all closed.

    Unfortunately, about 75% of the city's medical personnel were unavailable due to the war. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded, necessitating churches and state armories to double as shelters for the sick. The corpses started piling up, posing a real public health problem. The city appealed to the federal government to send embalmers, and individuals were being conscripted to dig graves for $15 a pop. By the time the epidemic abated in early November, almost 13,000 people were dead.

  • Public Spitting And Coughing Were Banned

    In some cities, schools, churches, and other public places were closed, and additional quarantine measures were also put into place. The medical community knew enough to realize that public gatherings and bodily fluids contributed to the spread of the disease. Aggressive public information campaigns were disseminated akin to the hand-washing and "cover your cough" campaigns in circulation today.

    Perhaps the most hilarious of the public health measures, though, was an ordinance adopted in several locations that banned spitting. In New Castle, Pennsylvania, spitting in public was met with a $1 fine and possible jail time. In all fairness, though, spitting isn't just bad manners. Apparently, it actually does kill people.