Reflecting on the Reality of the 1918 Flu

This pandemic experience has brought my grandmother to my mind a lot. She lost her youngest brother to the 1918 flu, which was devastating. He was just a little older than my younger son is now. I now wonder what kind of changes to her life she faced. My great-grandfather had tuberculosis, likely as a result of having the flu, and left the family for a time to recover in Arizona. All while she was in high school. When I used to wear her class ring, I never imagined what she went through.

Her cousin, Mark Sullivan, was a journalist and author who documented the first 25 years of the last century in his book series, Our Times (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY , 1946). I am sharing select quotes from that section of the related volume. If you are a history buff, you can purchase a set of the books here and here (they’re a rare find as a set). Dan Rather wrote an abridged version of the books in 1995 which is a very worthwhile read. I looked to the pages on the 1918 flu for more information and researched news and photo archives as well. All photos are public domain and link to their source.

These two flus were different as viruses, so comparing them is not perfect. I have not even tried to do so. But, how the public responded and recovered can be educational. Please note that at the time of the epidemic, it was referred to as the “Spanish Flu”, but shifted to being known as the 1918 flu. It lasted well into 1919 though.

This isn’t my usual cheerful craft post, so if you do not want to read about this topic, skip it. If you have anxiety around this issue or do not have a support system to work through worries with, you should skip reading this.


Quotes from ‘Our Times’ by Mark Sullivan

“In the age of microbiology, of serums, of enlightened and triumphant medicine, here were death lists three or four times as long as those of the Black Death of London, the terrible Plague of 1665.” Our Times, p.652

“The suddenness of the attack can be shown very simply. In Boston in the year 1914 there were 12 deaths from influenza; in the year 1915, 37; in the year 1916, 80; in the year 1917, 51. And in 1918 on September 4 alone there were 21 deaths. The rate rose steeply, until the apex was reached on October 1 with 202 deaths, following by a period of 175 deaths a day, relaxing on October 18 to 60 deaths.” Our Times, p.653–654, data from The Survey, October 26, 1918.

“…by early October 23 States were affected, by mid-October 36, but the end of the year 46. Nearly one-quarter of the people in the country fell sick; out of every 1000 sick, 19 died. The total deaths were between 400,000 and 500,000.” Our Times, p.654, data from The Survey, February 22, 1919.

“Everywhere, doctors, nurses, and undertakers laboured night and day, exposed themselves to the functioning of their own professions.” Our Times, p.654

“In early 1919 the pandemic vanished, yet for years thereafter it left a train of Bright’s disease, cardiac affections, and pulmonary tuberculosis – all from a little germ which no scientist could see, no doctor combat.” Our Times, p.654


Links to Modern Articles About 1918 Flu

Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly by 

Lessons from the deadly second wave of the 1918 flu pandemic by Adriana Usero

1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics – by Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. MorensEmerg Infect Dis. 2006 Jan; 12(1): 15–22., NCBI

Here’s what happened when students went to school during the 1918 pandemic by Theresa Waldrop, CNN

Boston refused to close schools during the 1918 flu By Dustin Waters

“Better Off in School”: School Medical Inspection as a Public Health Strategy During the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic in the United States by Alexandra Minna Stern, PhD, Mary Beth Reilly, BA, Martin S. Cetron, MD, and Howard Markel, MD, PhD, Public Health Rep. 2010; 125(Suppl 3): 63–70., US National Library of Medicine , National Institutes of Health

Here’s what Irish eyewitnesses had to say about the 1918 flu by RTÉ


In Daily Life

Children ready for school during the 1918 flu epidemic - Starke
Children in Florida ready for school during the 1918 flu epidemic


Kensington Depot - Influenza Epidemic (1918-1919)

Kensington Depot in NSW, Influenza Epidemic (1918-1919), Dated: April 1919


Women wearing surgical masks during the influenza epidemic, 1919

Five women are standing in front of a brick building, possibly a hospital, wearing surgical masks during the Spanish ‘Flu outbreak in Brisbane, 1919.


Diary entries of Edward G.R. Ardagh, October 14-17, 1918

Diary entries of Edward G.R. Ardagh, October 14-17, 1918


Wallangarra Quarantine Camp, Qld - 1919

The ‘Spanish Flu’ was a series of pandemic waves emanating from Europe at the end of WW1. The disease reached Australia early in 1919 and it is believed was initially brought back to Australia by returning soldiers. Therefore the need for this quarantine station on the border between New South Wales and Queensland where soldiers changed trains when returning home from the war. Notice the rope – it is marking the border between Queensland and New South Wales.


In Hospitals

A nurse takes a patient’s pulse in the influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital, Washington D.C., November 1, 1918.


09-5036-043 influenza

U.S. Naval Hospital. Corpsmen in cap and gown ready to attend patients in influenza ward. Mare Island, California 12/10/1918.


12-0137-009 influenza

USNH, Mare Island, Cal. Scene on ward during influenza epidemic. Nov. 1918.


Giving treatment to influenza patient at the U.S. Naval Hospital. New
Orleans, Louisiana, Circa 1918; NH-60309.


In The Press

To prevent influenza!

New Haven, Conn. : Illustrated Current News, 1918


16 October 1918

The Evening Star newspaper, 16 October 1918


Ontario Emergency Volunteer Health Auxiliary (Border Branch). "Influenza Bulletin”

October 26, 1918 Ontario Emergency Volunteer Health Auxiliary (Border Branch). “Influenza Bulletin”



“NEW ARMY IS ORGANIZED TO COMBAT ‘FLU’” Border Cities Star [Windsor, Ontario], 16 octobre 1918

“Spanish King; Spanish ‘Flu’ – Alfonso Very Ill; Sherbrooke Hit Hard by Epidemic”

“Spanish King; Spanish ‘Flu’ – Alfonso Very Ill; Sherbrooke Hit Hard by Epidemic” Border Cities Star [Windsor, Ontario], 4 octobre 1918


“Wear Veils And Avoid Influenza Health Man Says”

“Wear Veils And Avoid Influenza Health Man Says” Border Cities Star [Windsor, Ontario], 16 octobre 1918


“Coughing in Big Crowd is Hun Atrocity – Dr. Crickshank Gives Straight Talk on Influenza”

“Coughing in Big Crowd is Hun Atrocity – Dr. Crickshank Gives Straight Talk on Influenza” Border Cities Star [Windsor, Ontario] Date : 10 octobre 1918


Influenza frequently complicated with pneumonia is prevalent at this time throughout America

Chicago (Ill.). Department of Health.


To Prevent the Spread of Spanish Influenza ...

Kelowna, British Columbia, October 1918

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