The Spanish Flu: Its Impact and Relevance

A Kansas hospital in 1918, was the earliest documented case of the Spanish flu epidemic.  Wikimedia Public Domain.

As you read through this article you may notice a lot of similarities to the current Covid pandemic. It may seem that not much has changed in the last 100 years, but let’s take a closer look at exactly how this influenza started and how it was dealt with at the time.


The flu virus of 1918 evolved into a global pandemic that caused unprecedented fear, panic, and suffering throughout the world, and was one of the deadliest diseases in human history, with an estimated 500 million people infected and 50 million people dead worldwide.

The Flu is a reminder of the dangers posed by infectious diseases and how quickly they can spread. It is a cautionary account of how the power of microbes can cause global disasters and of the need for preparedness in the face of such a threat.

The Spread and Impact of the Spanish Flu

Its Origin

The Spanish Myth

It was widely believed that the pandemic originated in Spain, hence the name ‘Spanish Flu’, but that is due more to political means than fact.

Numerous countries in Europe and the United States as well suppressed the news of this devastating and rapidly spreading disease. Mostly because they did not want to cause panic while the countries were at war, but Spain, which was a neutral player, allowed their press to broadcast the news noting virus outbreaks in Madrid, and consequently, the Spanish Flu rumors materialized. 

So Where Did It Really Begin?

In the spring of 1918, the actual recorded case of the flu originated in the United States, from that of army cook Albert Gitchell at Camp Funston in Kansas, who was officially diagnosed with the disease. Shortly after this, many other soldiers from the overcrowded camp also came down with the virus.

This doesn’t mean that the flu originated in the United States. Indeed, many postulate that the soldiers brought it back from Europe and some believe it started from infected poultry in France. This theory of how the virus started has been accepted by many, but the location of origin is still under debate.

Its Impact

The impact of the flu pandemic was worldwide. The virus hit young adults and people between the ages of 20 and 40, which was unusual and it infected military personnel especially hard. This age group had less immunity to the disease than children and older adults.

The most vulnerable were people living in crowded conditions and those who were employed in high-risk occupations. New York City’s crowded Lower East Side, where major populations of immigrants came to reside was a perfect example of how the virus was able to spread.

NYC Lower East Side Early 1900
The crowded streets of NYC’s Lower East Side in, Early 1900 were a perfect breeding ground for the virus.  Wikimedia Public Domain.

Many of those who died were people who developed pneumonia, which was often misdiagnosed as the flu.

The Spanish Flu spread to every country in the world and killed an estimated 5% of the global population.


This virus was so devastating that the life expectancy in the US went down from 51 years old to 39 after the flu became a pandemic.

Global Responses 

The initial response was widespread panic. Some people tried to quarantine themselves at home while others fled to rural areas, hoping to escape it.

Some countries took drastic measures, closing their borders or imposing martial law. Quarantine was one of the most common responses and was used in many countries to halt the spread of the disease. Others imposed travel restrictions or ordered people to stay home.

In some cases, governments tried to limit the movement of people who were most likely to be carrying the disease. In other countries, groups of people were quarantined because of their ethnicity or profession, such as doctors or nurses. Some cities and towns ordered that all churches be closed.

The pandemic prompted extraordinary measures, including the construction of a moat and a wall around Boston, the burning of New York City garbage, and the disinfection of passengers and cargo on ships.

The Scientific Legacy of the Spanish Flu

When the flu first hit, there was very little known about how diseases spread. But the pandemic prompted scientists to investigate further.

Although scientists didn’t have the technology we have today, such as electron microscopes, researchers were still able to make discoveries. These studies have helped scientists better understand current pandemics such as the spread of Covid and future influenza diseases.

This also led to advances in medical care and public health response. During the flu epidemic, some cities established public health departments for the first time. It also marked a shift in the way public health was studied and modeled. 

Comparing the Spanish Flu to COVID-19

The 1918 Flu pandemic occurred at a time before the use of modern medical practices, such as antibiotics and vaccines. It was an example of a pandemic that spread rapidly and caused high levels of mortality. However, it was an unusual pandemic because it was caused by a virus, whereas most previous pandemics are caused by bacteria.

The current pandemic, COVID-19, is a different type. It is caused by a type of influenza that has occurred regularly in human populations. This type of flu is known as a “regular seasonal flu” but Covid has mutated and is behaving differently than other seasonal flu.

Unlike the Spanish Flu, this current pandemic is not causing high levels of mortality at this time; however, when the disease first started to spread, there was an abundance of deaths, with over 6.5 million fatalities so far, but these deaths have subsided now. People are still catching it, but usually only get cold symptoms, especially if they have been vaccinated. 

Lessons Learned from the Spanish Flu

The flu pandemic was an unprecedented global disaster. It left many countries and cities struggling to rebuild and provide basic care for their citizens. The experience of the pandemic demonstrated the power of microbes to cause death and destruction on a scale never before imagined. It led to the creation of many public health and medical institutions, including the U.S. Public Health Service and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It also led to the development of antiviral drugs, the use of quarantines to halt the spread of disease, and the use of face masks to reduce the risk of infection.


The Spanish Flu of 1919 was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. It was one of the first pandemics caused by a virus and was responsible for an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide. The pandemic is a reminder of the dangers posed by infectious diseases and how quickly they can spread.

It is a cautionary tale of how the power of microbes can cause a global disaster and of the need for preparedness in the face of such a threat. Even today, as the world continues to grapple with the current global pandemic – Covid, the Spanish Flu of 1919 serves as a reminder that history can repeat itself.

In today’s world, medical technology has advanced greatly for us to have a complete understanding of the flu virus and what we can do to prevent it.