Photos show how the 1918 flu pandemic brought the world to its knees

Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic. December 1918.

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Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic. December 1918.
source
The National Archives
  • The 1918 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people, and infected one-third of the world’s population.
  • 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.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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 theaters, 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 has hit China the hardest, 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.

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Nurses care for victims of a Spanish influenza epidemic outdoors amidst canvas tents during an outdoor fresh air cure, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1918
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, CDC


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.

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Historical photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many patients ill with the flu
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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.

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The Oakland Municipal Auditorium is being used as a temporary hospital with volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending the sick there during the influenza pandemic of 1918, Oakland, California, 1918.
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Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Source: PBS, Popular Mechanics


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.

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Members of the Red Cross carrying the body of an infected person.
source
Library of Congress

Source: PBS, Popular Mechanics


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.

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View of tents and patients at an emergency hospital in Brookline, to care for the influenza cases, Massachussetts, October 1918.
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PhotoQuest/Getty Images

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.

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Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918
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Library of Congress

Source: Popular Mechanics


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

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Red Cross volunteers fighting against the Spanish flu epidemic in United States in 1918.
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Apic/Getty Images

Source: PBS


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.

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This image shows warehouses that were converted to keep the infected people quarantined. The patients are suffering from the 1918 Influenza pandemic
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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Source: CDC


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

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Rules to reduce the spread of Spanish flu posting by the US Public Health Service.
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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.

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Members of the Red Cross Motor Corps, all wearing masks against the further spread of the influenza epidemic, carry a patient on a stretcher into their ambulance, Saint Louis, Missouri, October 1918.
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PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Source: Popular Mechanics, CDC


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

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The Red Cross brought food to an African American family in Charlotte, North Carolina. They arrived too late for the mother, who had just died.
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The National Archives

Source: National Archives


But often, nurses and doctors were so overwhelmed by the number of sick people that they didn’t have time to do anything for patients except give them some whiskey and attempt to make them comfortable.

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A Red Cross nurse gathering water.
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The National Archives

Source: Popular Mechanics


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.

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Red Cross nurses carrying stretchers.
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Library of Congress

Source: Popular Mechanics


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.

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A New York City mailman makes his rounds during the outbreak.
source
The National Archives

Source: Popular Mechanics


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

Policemen in Seattle wearing masks made by the Red Cross, during the influenza epidemic. December 1918.

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Police in Seattle protect themselves against the virus.
source
The National Archives

Source: Popular Mechanics


One cautionary jingle of the time reminded Americans to “Obey the laws, and wear the gauze, protect your jaws, from septic paws.”

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A trolley conductor in Seattle refused to let passengers on without a mask.
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The National Archives

Source: Popular Mechanics


This typist shows that masks weren’t just for outdoors either. Authorities advised that masks be worn at all times. Despite the precautions, the flu pandemic lowered the life expectancy by 12 years in the US in just one year.

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A typist in New York City wears her mask indoors.
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National Archives

Source: National Archives, Popular Mechanics


American soldiers even wore masks as they watched a boxing match aboard the USS Siboney. WWI increased the spread of the virus as soldiers traveled from country to country, bringing the flu with them.

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American soldiers are seen wearing masks at a boxing match aboard the USS Siboney.
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US Navy History Center

Source: PBS


By the end of 1918, 57,000 American troops died from the flu, compared to the 53,000 who died in combat.

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Masks and cubicles used in USA General Hospital No 4, Fort Porter, New York, 1918.
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PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Source: Popular Mechanics


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.

Source: CDC


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.

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A nurse checking on a patient at the Walter Reed Hospital Flu Ward during the influenza pandemic, Washington DC, circa 1918.
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Harris & Ewing/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Source: Popular Mechanics


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.

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Japanese school girls wear protective masks to guard against the influenza outbreak.
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Getty Images

Source: CDC


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.

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Red Cross workers removing bundles of masks for American soldiers from table where other women are busily engaged in making them, Boston, Massachusetts, 1918.
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PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Source: National Archives, Smithsonian Magazine, CDC


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.

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Virus H1N1, Responsible For The Deadly Pandemic Of Spanish Flu In 1918.
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BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Source: CDC


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.

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Doctors giving treatment to an influenza patient at the US Naval Hospital in New Orleans, 1918.
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MPI/Getty Images

Source: Popular Mechanics


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 51 other countries, killed 2,800 people, and infected 83,000.

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Iranian women wear protective masks to prevent contracting coronavirus, as they walk in the street in Tehran
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Reuters

Source: Business Insider


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 that has “pandemic potential.”

Source: Business Insider