The Great War may have unwittingly enabled that era’s other mass killer: influenza. The great flu pandemic of 1918 – which modern scientists study as a model of what could happen in the event of a “bird flu” outbreak — killed up to 675,000 Americans, 0.65 percent of the nation’s population. Most died in a terrifying span of 16 weeks. Worldwide, the toll was far worse: Death estimates range from 21 million to 100 million.
John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza (Viking, $29.95), speculates the deadly virus may have first appeared in Haskell County, Kan., from which newly mustered soldiers spread it to Camp Funston, Kan., in February 1918. The US Army’s gathering of men from across the country into close quarters galvanized the flu: In the spring of 1918, 24 of the 36 largest army camps suffered outbreaks. Barry adds that 30 of the 50 largest US cities – notably, those close to Army bases — also saw outbreaks.
But that was only the beginning, and nobody thought much of it. Then the flu returned with a vengeance in September, striking first in Philadelphia, where it quickly overwhelmed the city’s ability to deal with the dead. Soon, steam shovels were digging mass graves. (Keep this grisly bit of history in mind if you can’t find the burial site of an ancestor who died in late 1918.) As the virus spread inexorably across the country, some cities became ghost towns save for municipal workers garbed in masks. In most areas, gathering places from schools to saloons were shuttered and public meeting banned. One Philadelphia doctor said, “The life of the city had almost stopped.”
Much the way the Great War is said to have claimed a generation of Europe’s youth, the 1918 flu struck many in the prime of life – overall, half the US dead were between the ages of 16 and 40. So many young people died, according to Barry, because of what’s today recognized as a pathological process called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. A pulmonary expert describes it as “a burn inside the lungs.” Your ancestor’s death certificate likely ascribed the cause to pneumonia, if not to influenza.
The cycle of infection in each locale typically ran from six to eight weeks; then the incidence of flu dropped off sharply. As survivors gained immunity and the killer virus mutated, the pandemic burned itself out. In Philadelphia, where 4,597 people died from the disease in one October week, influenza had all but vanished by Armistice Day less than a month later.
Most indexes don’t list a cause of death; for that, you’ll need to get a copy of your ancestor’s death certificate – typically from the county courthouse or the state archives (see <www.cdc.gov/nchs/howto/w2w/w2welcom.htm> for information on where to write). Besides gleaning valuable genealogical data, you may get a glimpse of the killer that stalked the world in the fall of 1918.