The Great Influenza One Day at a Time

The influenza of 1918 was the greatest death event in the twentieth century. The inexorable rise in life expectancy throughout the century was most dramatically interrupted by the influenza. All of the advances in sanitation, nutrition, childhood vaccines and rising incomes could not negate the death brought by the virus.

U.S. Life Expectancy 1900 – 1960     

U.S. Life Expectancy 1900 – 1960    

The influenza took the lives of 567,254 Americans, and between 21 and 50 million people worldwide (equivalent to 2% of the global population). The event fundamentally altered world history, but would become “forgotten” before Alfred Crosby’s seminal 1989 review history.

The outbreak took place during the Great War. A war in which chemical weapons were used to kill and maim thousands. Yet the influenza would claim millions and change the nature of the war. The German Army’s ability to fight was compromised by the Fall of 1918, with more than 20% of its troops forced from battle by influenza. The U.S. would lose 45,000 of its forces to influenza in 1918.

Native Alaskan tribes and Pacific islanders would experience mortality rates of more than 40%. Public health laws would be invoked to quarantine entire cities, and influenza would be used as a cover story for President Wilson’s illness while in France negotiating the League of Nations. Walter Benjamin would be an influenza survivor, but fellow German social theorist Max Weber would succumb. Ironically the architect of the German bioterror sabotage program, Anton Dilger, would become a victim of mother nature’s bioterror, while General of the Armies of the United States John Pershing was a survivor.

Prospero Analytics’ Chair and public health historian Timothy Stephens and Prospero's Senior Science Advisor Jessica Taaffe, PhD in conjunction with John Walsh, PhD from the Program in Disaster Research and Training at Vanderbilt University, have compiled a narrative history of 1918 drawing from contemporary reports, newspapers, association and medical society meetings. John is the co-author of a forthcoming book on influenza and public health policy.  Jessica is a biomedical expert in infectious diseases and global health.

The largest inspiration and resource for this work is the Library of Congress’ digest of digital newspapers ( Our selection is not designed to be comprehensive. By selecting from all parts of the country, from local and national newspapers we have developed a conscious narrative representation of the fear, response, wartime exigency, knowledge, rumor and despair that reigned in America during the Great Influenza. There are more than 33,000 pages discussing influenza in digital database compiled by the LOC, more than 32,000 in the last 4 months of the year, and was rarely front page news before July. The outbreak was hardly stealthy, but in first eight months of 1918 a coal shortage, selecting draftees for the Great War, STD outbreak around the military camps, food safety, and the state ratification of the prohibition amendment grabbed headlines and kept the focus of medical and public health authorities.

The newspapers (and people) of the time were under severe government scrutiny. The Espionage Act of 1917 was supplemented on May 16, 1918 by the Sedition Act, which required no one "utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States." The Wilson administration had also established the (soviet sounding) Committee on Public Information (CPI). The CPI employed 75,000 people in a government public relations effort to keep the news positive, providing millions of column inches to the press across the country. 

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