In 1918 the United States was involved in World War I, but was also dealing with the outbreak of a deadly influenza epidemic. The first cases of the outbreak were recorded in Haskell County, Kansas, and Fort Riley, Kansas, where young men were being hospitalized for severe flu-like symptoms. A local doctor sent a report to the Public Health Service, but no one was sent to investigate the situation. On March 4, 1918, an outbreak appeared at Fort Riley, with as many as 500 soldiers hospitalized within a week. Within a month, however, the number of patients dwindled and it seemed that the flu had passed its course. Many of these soldiers were sent to Europe to help fight in World War I. While in Europe the disease mutated and became deadly. By May many reports of soldiers falling ill were reaching the U.S. It did not take long for the disease to spread from the soldiers to the civilian population of Europe, and then around the world. Few areas remained unaffected, and there were recorded outbreaks in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, as well as the Arctic and remote Pacific Islands.
The outbreak of 1918 was named the Spanish influenza. Although inaccurate, historians believe this name came from the lack of media censure in Spain when the disease hit. The virus mutated again and deaths were being reported in Boston, Massachusetts, by August. In September outbreaks were reported in California and Texas. By October 1918, 24 countries had reported cases of influenza, and many had several deaths. The Spanish influenza was different from other strains of the flu because of how quickly it passed from person to person and the age group it targeted. Most flu strains affect the very young, the elderly, and those without strong immune systems. The main victims of the Spanish influenza were aged from 20 to 40 and were typically healthy individuals.
In Fall 1918 the disease made its way back to Kansas and government officials were quick to take action against the spread of the disease. Dr. Samuel J. Crumbine was the secretary of the state board of health and began a campaign to keep the public in Kansas well aware and educated about the flu and what people could do to prevent it. However, despite these measures there were still hundreds of deaths reported in Kansas, and eventually health officers were forced to close individual cities. By closing schools, public gatherings, theaters, church services, and limiting the number of people in a store at a time, the government officials in Kansas hoped to limit the outbreak and prevent more people from becoming sick. Other countries were not so lucky, and although there is no official tally, it is estimated that the disease killed between 16 and 30 million people worldwide and was responsible for 675,000 deaths in the United States alone. The Spanish influenza was responsible for twice the number of casualties (both killed and wounded) of the United States in World War I, which totaled near 323,000.
A third and final wave of the epidemic hit in the spring of 1919, and many reported that it was so severe that people could wake up healthy and be dead by nightfall. By the end of spring the number of patients had dropped enough that officials lifted bans from their cities and states and people could resume school and church. Since the disease occurred at the same time as World War I, the epidemic was overshadowed. Although the epidemic only lasted a year, it left a large mark, both in America and worldwide.
Entry: Flu Epidemic of 1918
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: June 2012
Date Modified: February 2020
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