The Spanish Flu of 1918- Research Discoveries

I’ve been researching for my story Here Lies a Soldier by reading as much as I reasonably can about the time period. Honestly, too much and I’d be ready to jump off a bridge… One part of the story involves The Spanish Flu Epidemic –albeit ever so peripherally– and I wanted to educate myself on the plague that killed some 50 million people worldwide in 1918, more than 10 times the number killed by The Great War.

Rather than ‘reinvent the wheel,’ pulling tidbits and random facts from all over the place, I am in the process of reading a book about the flu:  Living With Enza -The Forgotten Story Of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic Of 1918.  IMG_3464

Thusly, the information I am going to share with you has been taken from this work. The author —Mark Honigsbaum— has compiled and sifted through a huge amount of data to write this book. Here are some of the things I found interesting and frankly, horrifying.

Some facts about influenza:

The term influenza most likely derives from the Italian phrase ‘influenzi coeli’ meaning ‘influence of the heavens.’ By the mid 18th century it was more common to hear the term, ‘influenzi di freddo’ or influence of the cold. It was in this sense that the term entered the English language in 1743.

Influenza viruses spread aerially, usually in small droplets expelled when someone coughs or sneezes, and tend to be more stable in cool dry conditions. Researchers have also discovered that at around 5 degrees C (41 degrees Fahrenheit) the virus transmits for about 2 days longer than at 20 degrees. A popular (and morbid) children’s rhyme of the time may actually be spot on. It goes like this:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flu-enza

The Spanish Flu in particular:

The Spanish Flu was so virulent because of its genetic makeup. There are 3 types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. The B type produces classic winter flu while the C type rarely causes disease in humans. The A type, however, is the one responsible for the great pandemics of history. Because viruses are not cells, they do not have DNA to organize their replication. Rather, they use 8 delicate strands of RNA which codes for proteins and enzymes on the surface of the virus. Trouble arises during replication because the RNA cannot copy perfectly. Errors called ‘antigenic drift’ occur when the avian or swine strain of the virus is exchanging genes with the human host.  The result is a new subtype of the virus. Then once inside the new host, the 8 strands of RNA randomly shuffle, generating an entirely new virus for which the human immune system has no antibodies. With no defense, the virus can spread like a wild-fire.

The rate of mortality fell disproportionally on young adults, usually the least vulnerable of a population. The 1918 flu struck suddenly and without warning. One moment a person was up and about, the next day they would be lying incapacitated, coughing up greenish-yellow sputum. The final stage came when their lungs filled with fluid, prompting the heart to leach oxygen from the head and feet, resulting in a dark purple staining across the lips and cheeks of the victim.

Possible contributing factors:

The effects of gas attacks during the war.  Gasses like phosgene and chlorine were not only capable of disabling and killing on contact, they also acted as soil contaminants denying valuable ground to the enemy. In all, it is estimated that some 150,000 tons of poison gasses – the equivalent of a modern day supertanker – were dumped on the killing fields of Flanders and Northern France during the last 2 years of the war, saturating the soil to the point where it became impossible for attacking troops to hold territory without large numbers of men having to retreat to field hospitals with suppurating blisters, damaged lungs, and eyes.

The most mutagenic of all gasses – mustard gas – 12,000 tons of which was dumped on the Western Front in 1917, accounted for 400,000 casualties. According to John Oxford, Professor of virology at Queen Mary’s Medical School of London and military historian Douglas Gill: these agents may have prompted ‘stepwise mutational changes’ in the influenza virus. And in combination with the bitterly cold conditions that prevailed at the Western Front in the winter of 1917, and the stresses and strains of war, it is possible such contaminants would have lowered men’s resistance to the flu.

That is a lot of information and I’m only part way into this fascinating book. If this subject interests you at all, I recommend reading it. As I continue my research, I’ll share some more of what I learn along the way. Or if you think this is terribly boring, let me know in the comments!



54 thoughts on “The Spanish Flu of 1918- Research Discoveries

  1. I find it fascinating, that one chain of events can set off a pandemic like that. I think people think mass illness is mostly a thing of the past, save for third world countries far far away. But we are very fragile, and it’s not outta the realm to think a new strain of something could wreak havoc on us, even in the developed world. And, yes, I think Ladies is correct about the Twikight thing. I didn’t read them either, but I was forced to sit through one of the movies

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, it is scary. And the way the virus so quickly evolved into a completely new form! Damn! I think about how much damage we inflict upon ourselves with the effects of modern life: pollution, chemicals in our food, all the EM radiation from our devices… You have to think that makes us vulnerable to… something!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And those who think the government or FDA has our backs are delusional. And my line of work puts me near the front line with regards to infectious diseases. Who’s the lucky boy? Ducking freaks me out. First thing I do when I get home is shower and change! 😃

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Absolutely true. All you can do is take reasonable steps to keep yourself healthy. I think we could all freak ourselves out if we thought about it long and hard. We probably don’t even know half the stuff we should be afraid of! You be careful out there, buddy! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Gown, mask, booties, and double gloving for this guy! I don’t plan on bringing the funk home. On the plus side, I’ve probably built up some kick ass immunities by this point. 😃

        Liked by 1 person

      1. So true, although we’re probably going to look back in a hundred years and say the same of now – thinking SARS virus a few years ago, ISIS terrorism, global refugee crisis and Zika virus.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It is fascinating. I hated history as a student but love it now. And I love doing research for my writing! I learn so many interesting things about all sorts of topics. I want to go to pastry school in Paris now, for example….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. World War II is often looked upon as the most orrific of wars (mainly because of the final death totals and the Holocaust). But as you pointed out in the statistics of chemical warfare, The First World War was every bit as horrifying. Being a bit of a historical buff, this was a fascinating read.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right! And with WWII there were troop movements, conquests, etc. but in the first war, they dug into their trenches and just slaughtered each other. The gained ground was only a few miles and then it would be lost again weeks or months later. Absolutely nothing was accomplished except death. It’s awful to contemplate. Thanks for reading and commenting, Drew! I hope your week is going well!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A Canadian scientist went to Svalbard to dig up the buried victims of the Spanish Flu there, as she reconed the permafrost would have preserved the bodies and thusly the virus. So she set up tets around the graves and got to digging, but unfortunately the bodies were buried above the permafrost. Of course you are not going to be digging 6 feet under up there. You dig til you hit the permafrost and bury them. This is why they have stopped burying people there, because the frost will actually push the bodies back up. It is actually possible to stumble over a human scull in the remote and less travelled places of the islands, because trappers and whalers of the 18th and 19th century didnt dig deep enough either.

    Anyways, Kirsty Duncan – in her high heels on the tundra, and a super sweet lady BTW, left without the big results she had hoped for and thus the riddle is still not completly solved. I do believe they got some information though. Here are some links that might interest you: (scroll down to career)

    Click to access 1419.full.pdf

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