The Spanish Flu

In October 1918 the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, his wife and child died of a lethal viral infection, which over the next two years was to sweep the globe. It had started first in Haskell County, Kansas, when a young army cook fell ill; By lunchtime a hundred similar cases had occurred at the army base. By the end of the week the number of cases had swelled enough to fill a large aircraft hangar.

Those that survived this first attack carried it to the battlefronts in Flanders. In late summer, a more deadly form of the virus had mutated, appearing at various points along the Atlantic seaboard. Newspapers were banned from reporting the extent of the infection in America and Europe, though, with victims suffering horrifying death, suffocating in their own body fluids. Where war had taken cultural talent from society, now so did infection. In November, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire died in Paris, his body turned black by oxygen starvation. In Philadelphia, over 5000 victims died in one week. Doctors had no idea of how to treat the infection and though nurses were often more successful because they routinely administered aspirin to bring down fever, many died as a very result of this: aspirin poisoning became their killer. By the time the disease had run its course in December of 1920, some 100,000,000 people across the globe had perished- approximately 3-5% of the world’s population at the time and far outnumbering the total dead of the First World War. Its victims were mostly young adults between 20-40 year of age, together with pregnant women; of those women that recovered, 26% lost their babies.

The spread of the virus and its virulence have been attributed to several factors. It is thought that the strain of the new virus first occurred in poultry kept in close proximity to concentrations of human population i.e. military training camps, troop staging posts, military hospitals and holding camps near the front line. Overcrowding, malnutrition and poor hygiene, especially amongst Italian migrants in New York, weakened the ability of victims to fight the disease. Carriers might also have included Chinese labourers drafted to work behind the allied lines in Flanders- flu had been recorded as early as November 1917 in China.

In 1939, Katherine Ann Porter wrote the story of a man who was nursing his sick girlfriend. She herself had recovered from the ‘flu epidemic of 1918, and the title of the story, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, echoes the symbolism of the Black Death of medieval Europe, to which the influenza pandemic has been rightly compared.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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