A History Lesson for Pandemic Life

There is a history lesson for pandemic life near the end of World War I. People wanted to celebrate. But peace wasn’t the only thing in the air. The so-called Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919 killed many tens of thousands of people across the globe. Many of whom died because they went to a parade or a party celebrating the end of the war.

Image of emergency hospital during Spanish Flu epidemic, a history lesson for Pandemic Life
By Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine – Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic Camp Funston, Kansas
(NCP 1603), National Museum of Health and Medicine
Public Domain

First Cases

It’s unknown where this influenza began its journey. The war raged on. Opposing sides didn’t share information.

In the fall of 1918, Spain reported they had a health crisis. That’s why the name Spanish Influenza came into use. Lucky Spain. But Spain isn’t where the virus started.

Some research suggested it may have started in the spring of 1981. In Kansas.

But no one knows for certain. Rumor and speculation filled in the blanks. The allies thought Germans released it as germ warfare. Others thought mustard gas had caused the flu. Still others believed the flu started in the trenches.

In a time when young men joined the armed forces, went to boot camp, then went overseas… the globe quickly saw the effects of the Spanish Flu. According to one source, half the U.S. servicemen who died during the war died of influenza. Not war wounds.

1918 Death Toll 

“The effect of the influenza epidemic was so severe that the average life span in the US was depressed by 10 years.”

Molly Billings

Different sources cite anywhere from 20 to 100 million people. Why is it so difficult to know how many died?

No surprise. Everyone focused on the war. Few paid attention to the flu. 

Out of necessity, medical science focused on the treatment and healing of war wounds. The fields of virology (the study of viruses) and epidemiology were relatively new and untested.

It ravaged the military camps in March and April of 1918. Very little containment or even acknowledgment of the virus happened. So the flu accompanied soldiers from all nations as they returned home. Then in the fall, Armistice celebrations brought thousands of people together to celebrate.

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

A Tale of Two Cities

Philadelphia held a parade to welcome their soldiers home. Over 200,000 people lined the streets to shout and wave. Three days later every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals held those sick with and dying from the Spanish flu. 

By the end of the week, more than 4,500 died.

By the time the city’s leaders closed the city, it was too late.

St. Louis, 900 miles away, reacted differently. Within two days of the first cases detected in St. Louis, the city started what is now we now call Social Distancing. The city closed schools, playgrounds, libraries, courtrooms, and even churches. They staggered work shifts and strictly limited streetcar ridership. Public gatherings of more than 20 people were banned.

The per capita flu-related deaths in St. Louis was less than half of those in Philadelphia.

Sign in a 1918 Navy Yard reads Spanish Influenza has endangered the prosecution of War in Europe There are 1500 cases in the Navy Yard 30 deaths have already resulted Spitting Spreads Spanish Influenza. Don't spit. A history lesson for pandemic life
U.S. Navy / Public domain

Social Distancing

Social distancing helps slow the spread of the disease. Slowing the spread of the disease keeps the hospitals and healthcare workers from being overwhelmed with patients. It buys time so that the healthcare system can treat the flood of patients and for researchers to develop vaccines and anti-viral therapies.

But the timing of when social distancing starts is critical. Philadelphia responded too late.

Social distancing must continue long enough to slow the spread of the virus enough. How long is that? I’m sorry to say that it depends on too many variables to predict.


There is more than one history lesson for Pandemic life in the story of the Spanish Influenza. The National Library of Medicine has an excellent article and so does Stanford U. I am grateful for the science learned from previous tragedies. One of those lessons is that pandemics will happen. We need to learn from each pandemic and improve our responses. Wear masks. Wash your hands. Stay home. And be thankful and kind to one another and to our essential workers.


  1. It’s fascinating how many similarities there are between the 1918 Spanish Flu and this pandemic. I’d read about the contrast between Philadelphia and St. Louis. Hope we’re doing enough to combat this thing! Thanks for the history and stay safe.

    1. Thank you, Jennette. We are taking every precaution. And I whole heartedly agree with your hope that we’re doing enough to combat C-19!

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