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Disease and War, 1918-1919

This dreaded disease known as Spanish influenza, or La Grippe, killed more people between 1918 and 1919 than the Great War (World War I).


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Type: Article
Resource: Tracing Lines
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Word Count: 739 (approx.)
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A bright, large blue sign in front of my local Wellness Center reads "Flu Shots Available." For many that would have been a welcome sign in 1918 and 1919 and for the most part we take flu shots for granted.

At Fort Riley, Kansas in March 1918, an Army private went to the camp hospital complaining of fever, headache and sore throat. Within a few hours there were over 100 soldiers ill and by the end of the week there were 500 soldiers ill with the influenza. This dreaded disease was known as Spanish influenza or La Grippe, and killed more people between 1918 and 1919 than the Great War (World War I).

The 1918 newspapers had warnings about the influenza. People were cautioned that it would strike without warning. The weak were extremely vulnerable. Symptoms included a fever that raged for three to five days. No cure was known so quarantines were imposed with fines of $15 to $100 if not enforced. Public health departments distributed gauze masks to wear in public. People were fined for coughing or sneezing in public.

Before the pandemic subsided in 1919, it had killed approximately 675,000 people in the United States and had also caused a panic. Families were broken apart by the malady with children left homeless and adults without spouses. At least 20,000,000 people throughout the world died of the influenza during that period of time. When the disease raged on and on, bodies piled up for burial. There was a shortage of medicine as well as coffins.

Coinciding with this was the United States' entry into World War I, after declaring war on Germany 6 April 1917. The first troops were sent to Europe in late June of 1917. During the winter of 1918 newspapers reported on the spread of influenza, but also carried headlines such as, "Hang the Kaiser," "Huns Burn Towns, Yanks Push On," "Wilson Stirred by Sight of U.S. Men."

It was thought that the disease was brought from country to country by sea-faring vessels passing through the major ports in cities. Not only did it strike civilians, but military personnel. Crowded, hot and dry conditions enhanced the spread of the disease. At the same time people pointed fingers at the Kaiser and Germans stating that German spies had planted influenza germs in the United States. Other theories were the poison gases used in the war, coal dust, fleas, carbon dioxide from trenches, decomposing bodies, and even dirty dishwater. While vaccines were administered at the Goat Island military training camp in San Francisco, the disease was not controlled or stopped immediately.

If any of your ancestors died in 1918-1918, be sure and obtain death certificates if they are available for that time period. Check the records of funeral homes and public record offices in the location where they died. The certificates and records may indicate that their death was from La Grippe or influenza. Because of the sudden deaths, many families were left unprepared and without funds for tombstones. Their graves may not be marked. Look for information also in obituaries or brief announcements of death.

Be sure to look through family memorabilia, diaries and letters for clues about family illnesses and deaths of family serving in the Great War. The memoirs left by my great grandmother Anne who was a nurse in Denver, Colorado, provide interesting stories about the influenza epidemic. She wrote that in August 1918 the epidemic hit Denver hard. There were not enough doctors so she had to accompany people in ambulances as they were brought to hospitals. She took whiskey and hypo needles with her and rode on her knees tending to the sick. Along with the influenza, people were suffering with pneumonia. There was a shortage of beds, thus tents were placed on the lawns and patients placed in them with hot water bottles and blankets. Fortunately grandmother survived, passing away in 1964 at the age of eighty-eight.

An excellent map showing the spread of the epidemic in the US in 1918 can be found at The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 is an informative web page.

As you begin researching time periods and dates of death, do not just enter them into your genealogy software. Study and learn what was happening in the world at that time period. I hope your ancestors were among the fortunate who did not die from Spanish influenza or the effects of the war.

Source Information: Tracing Lines, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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