The 1918 Flu Pandemic: History In Photos

Published April 30, 2017
Updated May 10, 2019
Published April 30, 2017
Updated May 10, 2019
Porch Ward
1918 Flu Pandemic Bedridden
1918 Flu Pandemic Dogs
Feeding Patents
The 1918 Flu Pandemic: History In Photos
View Gallery

Barring prisoners of war or missing persons, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that over five million people perished in World War One. Given the sheer scale of the carnage, many rightly regard the protracted conflict as one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in modern history.

Now take that devastation and multiply it by around ten, and you'll begin to have a sense of the death sweep that the 1918 flu pandemic brought unto the world. Indeed, the virus affected approximately one-fifth of the world's population and claimed approximately 50 million lives worldwide.

Unlike today, no flu vaccines or drugs existed to prevent people from contracting the illness or to slow its spread. If afflicted with a second strand of the flu, death came quickly — generally within hours or days of the arrival of symptoms.

The epidemic -- which some believe started in Europe -- changed the very fabric of American life. Schools shut down, businesses shuttered, libraries stopped loaning books, people swapped hats for masks, and bodies piled up outside funeral parlors. Within the pandemic's two-year span, U.S. life expectancy fell by 12 years.

By the summer of 1919, however, the pandemic had calmed and those with the flu had either died or developed immunity to it. And yet, there was no immediate, successful push to learn about why the illness was so deadly, or why it traveled the way that it did. In fact, in certain respects, interest in combatting the flu ended as soon as the pandemic did.

Some, including the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), say it had to do with the event's timing. “It is possible, that the pandemic’s close association with World War I may have caused this amnesia," HHS wrote. "While more people died from the pandemic than from World War I, the war had lasted longer than the pandemic and caused greater and more immediate changes in American society.”

It would take nearly a century before researchers developed an explanation for the flu's spread: three genes were able to weaken the victim's respiratory systems -- particularly the bronchial tubes and lungs -- and allow pneumonia to take hold.

Above, you'll find photos of people grappling with an epidemic the likes of which no one had really seen before -- and one which survivors would soon forget.

The 1918 flu pandemic wasn't the only one to wreak havoc on the world. These devastating pandemics prove it.

Erin Kelly
Erin Kelly is a freelance writer, artist, and video editor that splits her time between the humid Midwest and the dusty corners of her mind.