The mysterious virus that emerged in 1917-1918 and reached pandemic proportions has a murky origin story. Smaller outbreaks had been occurring in the years leading up to 1918 but the flu wasn’t as severe in nature or as long in duration. People were getting over it within a few days to a week at most. The earliest and most authoritative report of the Spanish Flu comes from Haskell County, Kansas, USA. So why on earth was it called “Spanish” flu? More about that in a bit.
Fort Riley in Haskell County had been set up fifty years earlier to be a cavalry barracks during the Indian Wars. The fort was surrounded by rich farmland and sat near the confluence of two rivers. In the spring of 1917, when the USA decided to declare war on Germany, Fort Riley was hastily converted to a training facility. A large army encampment –Camp Funston–was constructed within the sprawling military reserve lands, to hold and prepare some 56,000 troops to go ‘over there.’
On March 4, 1918, Camp Funston’s cook, Albert Gitchell reported sick with a sore throat, fever and headache. He would have been up before dawn to prepare breakfast but after a restless night without sleep, he felt so unwell by morning that he reported to the camp’s infirmary. Gitchell is thought to be the great flu epidemic’s patient zero.
One after the other, men began reporting with similar symptoms. They were placed in isolation wards and the medic in charge informed his boss, chief medical officer, Colonel Edward Schreiner. By noon, 107 cases had reported and the fear of epidemic became real. By the end of the week, 522 cases had reported and by month’s end 1100 men had become incapacitated. Colonel Shreiner requisitioned a hangar to house the overflow from the overcrowded base hospital.
It soon became apparent that this was no ordinary flu. While most did recover, 48 men had died. The symptoms were alarming. The violent cough, projectile nose bleeds and the deathly blue discoloration of the face were not symptoms of the classic seasonal flu outbreaks. The medical staff realized they had something more deadly on their hands.
So why the “Spanish Flu” you might ask, when the origin was likely from the other side of the ocean? The flu was in fact, erupting all over Europe during the spring of 1918. However, the nations involved in the turmoil were reluctant to give publicity to the flu outbreak so as not to panic or further demoralize the already battered and war weary civilian population.
The sobriquet “Spanish” Flu became popular when the outbreak hit Madrid, Spain. Theaters, schools and tram service was curtailed to stop the spread of the disease. Most notably though was the contraction of the flu by King Alfonso XIII and members of his government. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister were both afflicted along with a third of the population of Spain. As a noncombatant country, the Spanish had no concerns about a ‘civilian scare’ and thus both foreign and domestic correspondents reported freely on the pandemic in that nation. Thus the virulent flu became known as “Spanish.”
Source material: Living With Enza – The Forgotten Story of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, by Mark Honigsbaum