We Heard the Bells
The Influenza of 1918
In 1918, children all around the world and of all cultures were orphaned in a matter of months as around 50 million men and women died due to influenza.
The death toll in the US reached almost 700,000, which was five times the number of US soldiers killed in WWI.
Some of the survivors describe what it was like to live through this pandemic that was killing young men and women at alarming rates. The church bells that announced a death would ring constantly every day scaring those who were still alive.
In 1918, people did not see influenza as a disease that could cause death. It was just known as something one ‘suffered through’ during the months of January to March. With a common cold one starts feeling better after 4 or 5 days, but with influenza, it usually takes two weeks or more. During that period of time, the person suffers from high fevers, weakness or lack of energy, muscle ache, headaches, and a dry cough.
Complications from the flu cause about 200,000 hospitalizations in the US every year and an average of 36,000 deaths. But the flu outbreak of 1918 and 1919 killed over half a million people in the US alone, even though the population was only 1/3 of what it is today.
So whether it was called influenza, the grippe, or Spanish flu, it was clear from early on that this was not the usual flu that showed up every winter.
Today we know that a virus causes influenza and that it spreads from one person to the other through droplets when people cough and sneeze and also through coming in contact with someone’s hands or a contaminated surface. In 1918 no one knew how it started or how to stop it.
Usually, when people die of the flu it’s the very young or the very old, but in 1918 the death rate was high among young adults.
Of all the cities in the US Philadelphia had one of the highest rates of sickness and death and the most disruption. The city resisted putting measures in place that might have limited the spread of the virus.
In Baltimore, officials delayed closing schools and places of gathering. This move would have reduced contact and spread. As a result, hospitals and funeral homes were overwhelmed.