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The Mysterious Origins of the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

A pandemic is such a strange thing. 

It is something nobody ever thinks to live through in their life. I certainly never imagined I’d see such days as these. Deep down, I probably thought such things could not happen in our modern world. 
That it is happening should teach us something about our crazy assumptions. 

Last time, it happened almost exactly 100 years ago. 
It is the time in history I’m most interested in, so probably unavoidably, I ended up researching the 1918-1919 Spanish Influenza. 

What I’ve found echoes our time most eerily. 

What was the Spanish Influenza

WWI was still going on, or – as it would be more correctly said at this point – dragging on when the Spanish Influenza broke out and caused an upheaval that wasn’t lesser than the war itself. 

Although back then scientific analysis was scant, some preserved frozen lung samples have allowed to carry out investigations that have afforded us more knowledge on the disease than anyone had at the time. 
It was caused by a virus with genes of avian origin inducing violent influenza-like symptoms. The mortality, even among healthy people, was high, including in the 20-40-year-old group, which is usually the most reactive to the normal influenza viruses. 

1918-19 Spanish Flu (Getty Images)

There was no vaccine for influenza infection. In those days before antibiotics, there was also no protection from any other infection caused and related to the influenza. Controlled efforts could therefore only be limited to non-pharmaceutical intervention, and anyway, they were applied unevenly worldwide, with vastly different results in different parts of the globe. Isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limitation of public gatherings were the most common ways to try and limit the spread of the virus. 

It is difficult to say exactly how many people died of the Spanish Influenza. With symptoms very similar to other forms of influenzas and respiratory complications that didn’t differ from pneumonia very much, the cause of death often misinterpreted in the era stats. But it is estimated that one-third of the global population may have been infected, resulting in a number between 40 and 50 million deaths. 
It was an exceptional pandemic, broader and deeper than any previous one. 

It was broader because it spread all over the world, not just in the more crowded states. It manifested at first in North America and Europe but then spread as far as isolated places in the Alaskan wilderness and the most remote islands in the Pacific Ocean. 

It was deeper because the disease was especially sever, with a mortality rate among the infected of 2,5% as opposed to 0,1% of the more common influenza. 

The Spanish Flu of 1918-19 was broader than any other previous flu because it affected a lot more people. It was deeper because it was more severe #history #pandemic Click To Tweet

Was Spanish the place of origin of the Spanish Flu?

It is called the Spanish Flu because the first reports of its outbreak came from Spain, but both historians and researchers concord that Spain was not the place of origin. 

The flu appeared simultaneously in North America and Europe, but because of the war, it remained largely unreported. The countries that were involved in the conflict didn’t let the new transpire. At that stage in the war, the troops were already discouraged enough, and the population didn’t need further worries. 

But Spain was neutral. Spanish media didn’t incur in the same kind of censorship belligerents countries applied to their media, so the Spanish news was the first to give information about the contagion. It was then assumed that it had first appeared there. 

It first arose in the spring of 1918 – the “spring wave” or “first wave” – not in one but in many different places across the globe. In March-April 1918 the flu spread all over North America, Europe and large parts of Asia. 
Mutation and reassortment probably occurred during the summer of 1918, causing the virus to become significantly more virulent. The main wave of the pandemic – the “Fall wave” or “second wave” – occurred in September-October of 1918, and was the harsher. In some places, there was a “third wave” in January 1919.
It was only in 1920 that the pandemic was declared ended and the virus became endemic. 

The modern theory of the Spanish Flu’s origin

But if the flu didn’t arise in Spain, where then?

Historian Mark Humphries of the Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland has put forth a new theory, based on archival medical evidence. According to this theory, the origin of the pandemic is to be found in a forgotten episode of WWI: the shipment of Chinese labourers through Canada, to work in the trenches.

Chinese Labourers in teh trenches of WWI

1917 was probably the bloodiest year in the conflict. Several battles were fought in that year that cause a shockingly high number of deaths. The war had lasted three years already, and the moral was going down as was the number of men available for the war effort. 
The Allied, desperate for human resources, decided to bring in Chinese labourers who would take the soldiers’ place in the construction of the trenches, freeing soldiers for the actual assaults. 

In November 1917 a respiratory illness afterwards recognised as identical to the Spanish Flu, struck the North of China. Of the 25.000 Chinese labourers who reached the Western Front, at least 3000 ended up in quarantine with flu-like symptoms.
These people had left China on ships that would have normally circumnavigated Africa to get to Europe. But because that journey would have taken too long and would have cost too much, it was decided to ship them to Canada, get them on trains to cross the country and then again on ships to reach France. 
Anti-Chinese feelings were very high in western Canada at that time. To avoid problems, the Chinese workers were sealed inside the crowded wagons and then closely guarded in station-camps en route to the eastern coast. 
Many of these workers ended up in quarantine in these camps, with the same respiratory problems. But the doctors put down their illness to their ‘lazy’ nature, treated their sore troths with castor oil and sent them back to their camps. 

A racist attitude that inflicted a very dear cost in terms of human life on the entire global population.

The Chinese labourers reached Britain in January 1918 and were sent to France soon after, where many of them were recorded to have died with reparatory illnesses. A cause of death that would soon become frightfully common everywhere. 

There are, however, also other theories about where the flue might have originated.


Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention – History of 1918 Flu Pandemic
Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention – Pandemic Timeline
NCBI – The Origin and Virulence of the 1918 “Spanish” Influenza Virus
National Geographic – 1918 Flu Pandemic That Killed 50 Million Originated in China, Historians Say
History – Spanish Flu
Smithsonian Magazine – The Surprisingly Important Role China Played in WWI

THE MYSTERIOUS ORIGINS OF THE 1918 INFLUENZA PANDEMIC - It has become universally known as the Spanish Flu, but it didn't originate in Spain. The place of origin of the most deadly pandemic in history is still a mystery.


  • Kristin
    Posted August 21, 2020 at 16:16

    I’ve been looking at the flu in Selma and Montgomery Alabama, where my family was living and working at the time. There were school closures and re-openings and again closures. There were bans of big gatherings, closures of movie houses etc. etc. There were even people who refused to abide by the laws. I guess people are doomed to repeat things over and over.

    I need to write it up! I keep researching and not writing up.

    • Post Author
      Posted August 25, 2020 at 21:34

      I know this is very stupid, but it’s never occured to me that also in Isola della Scala, where I live, there must have been the pandemic.
      Now I wonder how people fair back then.

      • Kristin
        Posted August 25, 2020 at 21:45

        There are probably lots of items in the local newspaper.

        • Post Author
          Posted August 27, 2020 at 08:08

          I suppose so. Maybe not in my village, but certainly in Verona. I know there is a collection of microfilms starting with newspaper of the late 1800s. I’ll have to chacke first thing if they have digitalised it 🙂

          • Kristin
            Posted August 27, 2020 at 14:44

            I hope they have. Newspapers are such a great source of information and microfilm is so difficult – first finding it close by and then sitting and scrolling on the old machines. At least that has been my experience with microfilm here. Good luck.

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