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Photos: How the 1918 flu pandemic brought the world to its knees

Seattle Police, 1918 Flu
Olumide Adegoke


  • In the US, the virus forced public meetings, schools, churches, and theaters to shut down.

  • In just one year, 675,000 Americans died.

  • Originally referred to as the Spanish flu, the virus is now known as H1N1, and originated from an avian strain.

  • Today's outbreak of the novel coronavirus has sparked fears of another pandemic. These images show just how deadly the 1918 flu was.

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people and infected one-third of the world's population.

It was the worst pandemic in modern history. The 1918 influenza virus swept the globe, killing at least 50 million people worldwide.

In the US, the disease devastated cities, forcing law enforcement to ban public meetings, shut down schools, churches, and theatres, and even stop funerals.

In total, 675,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu, named after the disease's early presence in Spain.

Today's outbreak of the novel coronavirus has sparked fear of another pandemic. The coronavirus, which hit China the hardest beginning of the year, has spread to 51 other countries, killed at least 2,800, and infected over 83,000 people. The World Health Organization considers the outbreak an international public health emergency that has "pandemic potential."

These photos show the devastation of a pandemic, and how the Spanish flu brought the world to its knees not so long ago.

There is no universal consensus regarding the origins of the H1N1 influenza virus, but some have pointed to the pandemic beginning in France, China, or the US.

1918 flu: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first confirmed case of the virus in the US occurred in the spring of 1918, at an army camp in Fort Riley, Kansas. Two weeks later, 1,100 soldiers were admitted to a hospital, and thousands were sick in barracks. At that time, 38 soldiers died.

US Army. Sources: PBS, Smithsonian Magazine

The first strain of the flu was originally called "the three-day fever" and was typically described as a heavy cold. Although the flu spread around the world in just a few weeks, it seemed to have died down by the end of the summer.

Source: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

But a new strain of the flu virus emerged in the fall, and this time it was significantly more dangerous. The virus took the world by storm, killing victims in just a couple of days.

Image source: Library of Congress

By the first week of September, an average of 100 people died per day at an army camp in Massachusetts. "We have lost an outrageous number of Nurses and Drs., and the little town of Ayer is a sight," wrote one of the camp's doctors.

Source: Popular Mechanics

The symptoms of the Spanish flu were particularly frightening. Beginning with the ears, the victim's face would begin to turn blue as oxygen was deprived. A bloody liquid would begin to fill the victim's lungs until the victim would suffocate and die.

1918 flu

Doctors worked desperately to discover the nature of this strange new disease. They were shocked to discover that it was a variation of influenza.

At the time there was no vaccine to prevent the spread of the virus, and no antibiotics to treat secondary infections, so authorities resorted to non-medicinal interventions including quarantines, isolation and increased sanitation.

One of the 1918 flu isolation centre. Source: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A poster by the United States Public Health Service warned Americans how to protect themselves against spread of the disease.

1918 flu poster by the United States Public Health Service. Source: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

As officials attempted to deal with the overwhelming number of sick people across the country, Red Cross demonstrations were held. During the pandemic, 25% of Americans would contract the flu and 675,000 would die.

Red Cross official helping sick people across the country. Source: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The Red Cross also brought food to sick families throughout the pandemic.

Red Cross officials distributing foods to sick families. Source: The National Archives

In October 1918, the pandemic was at its worst, killing 195,000 Americans alone. The situation became so dire that caskets began to run out and some cities even banned funerals to prevent further spread of the virus.

Panicked cities began to require that citizens wear masks to hinder the alarming spread of the virus. New York City was hit particularly bad, with 851 people dying from the flu in one day alone.

A citizen wearing a mask during the 1918 flu. Source: The National Archives

Cities were put on lockdown for weeks at a time as local governments closed theaters, schools, and churches to stop the flu from spreading.

Seattle Police, 1918 Flu

WWI increased the spread of the virus as soldiers travelled from country to country, bringing the flu with them. By the end of 1918, 57,000 American troops died from the flu, compared to the 53,000 who died in combat.

No part of the world was safe from the pandemic. Even a tiny ocean-side village in Alaska was affected. During five days in November, the flu killed 72 of its 80 adult inhabitants.

While most flu viruses target the young and old, the majority of those who died from the Spanish Flu were between 20 and 40 years old. The strong immune systems of the healthy would overreact in an attempt to fight the virus and end up ravaging the lungs.

Every corner of the globe and every major city was hit by the virus in just a matter of weeks. Between 50 million and 100 million people around the world died from the Spanish flu.

The pandemic only lasted 15 months, but the virus infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide. The global population was 1.8 billion people in 1918.

The influenza pandemic remained a mystery for nearly 80 years. But researchers in the 2000s successfully isolated, decoded, and replicated the entire sequence of the virus, now known as H1N1.

At that time, it was discovered that the virus originated from an avian strain. The H1N1 virus previously only affected birds, but in 1918, it developed the ability to jump to humans and spread rapidly.

Researchers in the 2000s successfully decoded the entire sequence of the virus, now known as H1N1.

Today, an outbreak of the novel coronavirus has caused fear that another pandemic could occur. The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, and has now spread to at least 210 other countries, killed 138,101 people, and infected 2,078,277.

The scale of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has drawn comparisons to the 1918 flu pandemic. The World Health Organization considers the outbreak an international public health emergency and has now officially declared it as a pandemic.

Coronavirus cases

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