Learning from the Great Pandemic of 1918

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

For historians, every year is an anniversary of one event or another that happened in the past. Last year, 2017, was the 500th anniversary, or the quincentenary, of the Reformation that took place in 1517, and the 100th anniversary, or the centenary, of the Russian Revolution that took place in 1917. This year, 2018, is the centenary of what is known as the Great Pandemic of 1918. While it may seem irreverent to attach an adjective “great” to an epidemic, we may learn a valuable lesson from this epidemic that started out as an outbreak of influenza in a small local area in one country to quickly become a worldwide epidemic never seen in history, hence the adjective “great.”

We may note that history books refer to the Russian Revolution in 1917 as the Great October Revolution, although it actually took place in November according to the Gregorian calendar adopted in the rest of the world. There is no question that it was a great victory for the Bolsheviks who had been fighting to end the autocratic rule of the Romanovs since its founding in 1903, including the uprising of 1905 against the killing of hundreds of workers by Czar Nicholas’s troops petitioning for labor reforms and the February Revolution of 1917, which brought down the Romanov dynasty.

The 1918 outbreak of an influenza epidemic is called the Great Pandemic of 1918 because it spread worldwide to become history’s worst epidemic in terms of human tolls. To be sure, there had been other epidemics that claimed heavy human tolls in history. The plague that begun in 1347, known as the Black Death, that wiped out half the population of Europe in 20 years would be one example of such great epidemic in human history.1 Another example would be a cholera epidemic that broke out in the Ganges delta in 1817 and spread towards Europe, reaching Austria, Germany and Poland by 1829. And we may also include the AIDS epidemic of the twentieth century as still another example of a great epidemic. However, the number of deaths due to the AIDS epidemic is nothing compared with the number of deaths caused by the 1918 outbreak of an influenza epidemic.

Indeed, what makes the 1918 outbreak of an influenza epidemic great is the great speed with which it spread around the world and the great number of human tolls that it claimed. The pandemic is believed to have started out as an influenza outbreak among farmers in Haskell County, which is in the southwest corner of Kansas, according to a recent study.2 Soldiers in training for combat in World War I at Camp Funston, Kansas, were the next to be infected, and from there the influenza spread to other army camps in the US, and then to France with the arrival of American troops there. Spain was the next country affected—so badly that the people started to call the second wave of the outbreak as the Spanish flu. And from Spain it spread worldwide, including countries on the African continent, and even to New Zealand. The pandemic lasted only 15 months, but turned out to be the deadliest pandemic, claiming the lives of 670,000 Americans and between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide. Compared with about 35 million people worldwide who have died since the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, we can see the magnitude of the 1918 outbreak. And this is the reason why it is now called as the Great Pandemic of 1918.

For those of us living in the world one hundred years after that historic outbreak, it is important to examine whether the world is susceptible to another such pandemic. Considering how advances in medical sciences have uncovered the causes and cures for most diseases that afflict us humans, we may think that such a pandemic is a thing of the past. But the truth of the matter is that we humans are not immune from health threats that come the natural environment. The Great Pandemic of 1918 is believed to have started from hogs in rural Kansas. If that were indeed the case, it would be what we now call a swine flue. By now we know that a virus can jump across species from an animal to humans. The 2013 outbreak of influenza, H7N9, which infected thousands of people worldwide, was the case of bird flu. While medical researchers continue to develop an effective flu vaccine, the effective of such vaccines is still limited, and we cannot completely deny the possibility of another outbreak of a great pandemic due to a new strain of influenza.

The centenary of the Great October Revolution of 1917 turned out to be a low-key affair, called the Day of People’s Unity even in Russia. This is understandable, considering that the USSR, the country the revolution gave rise to, no longer exist. We can only hope that the centenary of the Great Pandemic of 1918 will also turn out to be a low-key affair in terms of the number of human tolls due to influenza. In the meantime, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we humans, after all, share the universe with all the other living things, including influenza viruses that keep on changing and transforming themselves just as we do.

  1. For this and other examples of plagues in history, see McNeill, William H., Plagues and Peoples, New York: Anchor Books, 1976.
  2. For a detailed account of the Great Pandemic of 1918, see Barry, John M., “Journal of the Plague Year: 1918 Outbreak”, Smithsonian, November 2017.