October 1918: Outbreak of Spanish Flu Kills Millions

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In 1918, the most severe pandemic in recent history spread across the globe. The Spanish flu, or the H1N1 virus, infected 500 million people (about a third of the world’s population). Before it was over, about 40 million people died worldwide!

Spanish Flu Pandemic
The Spanish flu arrived in three waves. It initially appeared in the spring of 1918. The first wave was mild. Symptoms included chills, fever and fatigue, but those infected recovered relatively quickly. By fall, however, the virus took a dramatic turn. The second wave was deadly, especially for people ages 20 to 40. In addition to the sudden onset of earlier flu symptoms, many developed a virulent strain of pneumonia. Their lungs filled with fluid and many victims died within hours or days after coming down with symptoms. The third wave hit that winter, and by the spring of 1919 the virus had run its course.

Though the origin of the virus is not known, it arrived during WWI, when troop movements and the living conditions in military camps helped it to spread. Governments were slow to report on the flu’s severity, for fear it could be seen as a military weakness. But when the flu arrived in neutral Spain, newspapers reported widely on it. As a result, the virus became known as the Spanish flu. It even infected the King of Spain. When it was over, the Spanish flu killed more than the war did. In fact, of the US soldiers who died in Europe, half of them died from flu and not the enemy.

Back on the home front, in an effort to contain the wildfire-like spread of the flu, gatherings of all types were cancelled, weddings and meetings postponed, and churches shuttered. Schools closed, prompting The Nebraska State Journal to offer students cash prizes for the best written entries on how they were spending their school break.

Unsure how to best combat the spread of the virus, Health Departments advocated fresh air as cure. Restaurants advertised new sterilization techniques, movie theaters required patrons to spread out with empty seats and rows, and drug stores advertised remedies to keep the flu away. Eventually many public gathering places closed altogether.

The human toll of the pandemic was astonishing. Children everywhere were left orphaned when parents succumbed to the virus. Families buried their loved ones one by one. Hospitals were overcrowded and undertakers and coffin makers were unable to keep up with demand. Homes of the sick were quarantined and family members often too sick to care for one another. Officials discouraged gatherings of any type, including funerals. Only close family members could attend the funerals of loved ones, and funerals were limited to 15 minutes!

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 affected everyone in some way. One-quarter of the country became infected and 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the virus. How did it impact your family tree? If you would like to learn more about this pandemic, search our archives today!

Search our archives today to find the obituary for your ancestor!

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76 thoughts on “October 1918: Outbreak of Spanish Flu Kills Millions

    1. My great aunt Julia age birth on Jan 16th 1919 and she died ten days later. Her husband died the same day. They were in their 20s. The tend day baby was taken home and raised by my grandparents.

      1. Hi i survived the H1 N1 I was supposed to die but I didn’t thank you Jesus I didn’t but I have H1 in one in me so I need to be I need to be careful Hawaii around with

  1. My paternal grandmother died after nursing her 4 children through the flu. Consequently the children were separated among three different close families but my Dad was only. 17 months old and did not find out that his “mother” was really his aunt-by-marriage until he was 11 years old. His brother age 15 came from Philadelphia to New York, met him on the street near his home and simply said:”I’m your brother”. My father rushed to the family’s apartment and asked his “mother” : “Is it true?” She confirmed it. BTW she died on Oct 17th 1918, 100 years ago next week.

    1. As with you, I lost my grandmother to this epidemic on October 22, 1918. She entered the hospital to deliver her fifth child and died of the Flu. Her daughter survived. She was 26. Her older sister died of the flu the same day in the same hospital.
      Since my grandfather could not manage five children and also maintain a job, my father and his siblings would be taken in by a local orphanage where they lived for the better part of 10 years.
      There is a wonderful book entitled “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History” by John Barry that I would highly recommend.

      1. Oh, how sad. Young people died who had their whole life ahead of them. So many children orphaned by this epidemic.
        My grandfather had died 6 months before in a work accident so when my grandmother died the 4 children were without both parents. Too many families broken up due to the demographic group hit the hardest by the flu.
        I will read that book; thank you for the recommendation.

      2. So unreal that the people who were dying were relatively young. When we think of people dying from the flu it’s usually babies and older people, those without a solid immune system. What a terrible thing to lose family members,some in a matter of hours.

      3. Thanks for the heads-up on the book. I have it from the library. Super coverage of the whole time and heroic efforts. Odd coincidence = my husband worked at Rockefeller University for over 40 years. He began when it was still Rockefeller Institute; changed name around 1962.
        I recommend the book too!

        1. John Barry’s book claims 100 million people died worldwide.
          It’s almost too much to imagine…and so very sad and scary.

    2. My dad’s mother died Oct 22, he was two years old. She had beaten it in Springtime, then a neighborhood kidncame running thru the home and reinfected her. Dad’s brother was six months old and died as well. Horrible.

      1. Truly so tragic. I didn’t know that one could be infected again. That’s really scary.

        1. That’s the problem with flu virus they often mutate so they can continue to infect humans

    3. OMG I’m just reading this today Oct 17, 2018. I also had a grandmother who died from the influenza, it also was Oct. 17, 1918. My father was 9 mos. old. She had two sisters that also died within 5 days of her.

    4. OMG I’m just reading this today Oct 17, 2018. I also had a grandmother who died from the influenza, it also was Oct. 17, 1918. My father was 9 mos. old. She had two sisters that also died within 5 days of her.

      1. Yes a very sad anniversary for your family too. Devastated so many families; it’s hard to imagine how difficult that time was with death all around.

    5. A century ago today. What a great example of a great Mom. Odd share her story with everyone I knew. Very cool.

  2. My husband’s grandmother was one of three children orphaned in 1920 in Hawaii, because it took a little longer to reach the islands. Her mom was pregnant and got sick first, her dad collapsed on the front porch after going for the doctor and died right there. The young siblings were split with boys going to the well-to-do spinster aunts and the daughter being eventually placed in a boarding school in San Fran. She grew up saying she never returned to Hawaii, but I found through Ancestry records that she actually returned a number of times. Her life after that was very hard and she never quite recovered from the loss, the memories of her idyllic life on a Hawaiian plantation with beautiful parents never left her. It’s one of the saddest stories ever, and will be the subject of my book, whenever I have time to write it.

  3. My grandfather’s sister died of the flu just days after giving birth to a girl. My grandfather was in France for WWI and his sister was staying with his parents. My grandmother was not yet married to my grandfather but came over and took care of those in the family who had the flu. She was so tough and ended up living to the age of 105. My grandparents helped to rear the children of his sister and the girl was considered an older sister to my father and his brother.

    1. That’s so typical of the children left behind. Families took in the orphaned children whenever possible. In my Dad’s case his aunt and uncle already had 3 children and he grew as their baby brother.

  4. My mother’s younger sister died at the age of 4 at the hospital, but her father and oldest brother survived at the farm. The family members placed their food outside their bedroom door and isolated themselves on their farm. After the minister held her funeral service that was attended by only the immediate family, he burned his clothes at the farm. Hundreds of service men were being treated at the Ames, Iowa armory that summer.

    1. They were lucky and careful. Sorry that your aunt succumbed at 4 years old. The possibility of contracting the flu would have scared everyone but at least they had some help from family.

  5. My great aunt died several hours after her husband, both from this flu. They left behind several young children, which my great grandparents raised.

    1. What a tragedy to lose both parents on the same day. Thank goodness family were able to take the children.

  6. Frank Cook Swearingen b 1 Aug 1888-Pa d 4 Nov 1918 in Youngstown Ohio. His only daughter Naomi b 27 Oct 1917 died the week before 30 Oct 1918. His wife Ellen Johnson was in the hospital in critical condition, with the Spanish flu. If she died,I can`t seem to find out. Frank was my great uncle. [source] Youngstown indicator 4 Nov 1918 pg 12. Last address # 82 Auburdale Street

    1. The whole family possibly gone in a few weeks? What a tragedy – so much sorrow for those left behind.

  7. My mother was one of 10 children, 8 of whom were born before the flu hit. Her parents and all her siblings caught the flu. what is remarkable is that one of the nuns at their Catholic parish offered to nurse them. She moved from the convent into the family home (unheard of for nuns in those days!) And based on her age at death, she was only about 18 years old at the time. But she was somehow driven to help where she could.
    She cooked, cleaned, did laundry, and nursed the entire family. Everyone in “her adopted family” survived (one of the few in their neighborhood who survived intact), and she never caught the flu!
    But from then on, she was considered a member of the family, and came to every baptism, birthday party and family event for the next 60 years! My grandparents called her their personal guardian angel.
    So there were some uplifting events and success stories in this time of such sadness and misery.

  8. My mother’s father caught the flu in 1918 and died in three days. He was living with wife and three children in Vermont. He was a big, strong man, and worked in the quarries.
    My grandmother was a wonderful mother, and I think she sent her youngest daughter, my mother, to live with a cousins family. My grandmother lived to be 91 years old. My uncle, Evan, left for Africa when he was 20, and went to work for an uncle in Southern Rodesia, where he was an engineer. The family lived in Bulawayo, South Africa.

  9. My grandmother forbid her husband to drink alcohol. When she learned two of his brothers were ill with the Spanish flu she got him drunk and incapacitated him so he was unable to visit his two brothers. They both died and he lived to raise seven children of his own. I find this a very sad family story.

  10. My Dad lived through this during WW1 in France. He was a Sgt and pharmacist in the Army, Dixie Division. He told me that bodies were piled up like firewood from the Spanish Flue. More men died from the flue than any other reason during WW1.

  11. The “Spanish” flu is believed to have begun in Haskell County, Kansas, according to John Barry’s book, “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History”. It was called “Spanish” to shift the blame to outside the U.S., and to not undermine belief in the U.S. troop readiness.

  12. I owe my life to the Spanish flu. My grandfather enlisted in the war to spare his younger brother from being drafted. He got the flu while still in boot camp at Camp Devens in Massachusetts. The woman who nursed him back to health was my grandmother. They never would have met if not for the Spanish flu.

    1. Wow…great story. My story is similar. My grandfathers first wife and unborn baby died of the flu. He also got the flu but recovered. He had 5 kids to raise so he remarried quickly, to her cousin, my Grandmother. They went on to have several more children, which included my father. So, If his first wife hadn’t passed, I wouldn’t be here.

  13. My father was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Paris in 1918 when he contacted the flu and spent six weeks in confinement, eventually recovering and returned to the states to continue his life. He was one fortunate individual.

  14. My Great Grandfather lost 2 sons to the Great War while fighting in France in October 1918. His youngest son died from this flu while at Machine Gunnery school at Camp Hancock (Georgia, US), also in October. Three months earlier his first Grandchild died at 10 days of age. His wife died in December of the same year. A tragic year for him and his family.

    1. Iimpossible to imagine his deep sorrow losing so many family members. It certainly was a very tragic year for him. So sorry tnis happened to your family.

  15. My grandfather died on October 19, 1918 on the flu, and my dad was given last rites. I have tried to find more info on my grandfather, but other than when he married my grandmother and when he died, he remains a mystery.

  16. My family survived. My grandfather packed my dad a lunch & sent him into the mountains every morning telling him not to talk with or come near any other person & not to come back until after dark. My dad was about 6 years old and they lived at over 10,000 feet so snow & cold. My dad did as he was told & survived. My grandfather was the one who took care of everyone in their house. In our town there were no funerals & the dead were buried in mass graves at the far end of the cemetery as quickly as possible to keep the flu from spreading. What a sad time.

  17. My grandfather’s two young sisters died in Breathett county Ky One of the girls was a teenager and one in her early twenties. Papaw was one of fifteen children. Both girls laid corpse at the same time.

  18. This is personal to everyone. In researching my own family, I reach a generation where young men were killed in almost every individual family in the war, then in the last year of the war or after, while waiting for demobilization, medical records read “Influenza” or “Pneumonia” as cause of death for so many soldiers. My grandfather fought in WWI and, when he would speak of that time, described military and medical conditions ripe to cause and promote disease.

  19. I have letters from my Grandmothers Great Uncle in Tx to her Grandfather in Philadelphia telling how their parents suffered terribly and died from The Spanish Flu. The father had died while they were living in their barn waiting on a new house to be built. So so sad. Also on my Dads side, his grandparents raised his Grandfathers brothers daughter bc both her parents died from The Spanish Flu.

  20. My husbands grandmother in Grand Rapids Michigan called the doctor because her seven children were sick witht he flu in 1918. The doctor told her he would take the 1 year old and 5 year old to the hospital, thinking he could save them. Grandma made onion poltices and place it on the chests of the other five children multiple times a day. The children who went to the hospital both died, the other five children at home treated with home remedies all survived. An onion poltice is a towel filled with sauted onions, wrapped up burrito style, placed on the chest with a hot water bottle. The healing properties of the onions got rid of the congestion. One can also add garlic to the mix as an old fashioned antibiotic.

  21. My grandfather was working in San Francisco when the Spanish flu arrived in California. He left work early as he was not feeling well and was walking to the Ferry Building to catch the ferry to Alameda.

    He was stopped by a gentleman as he continued his walk and was asked if he was alright. He told the man that he was on his way to go home. The man asked him if he was aware that he was walking backwards! Grandpa was much sicker than he thought, was assisted to his ferry and ended up sick for three weeks.

    Grandpa told me this story every time there was a flu outbreak. He died in 1980 at the age of 93, one month shy of his 94th birthday.

  22. On the last day of January 1919 my great aunt lost her husband and within a few days had lost four of her seven children. I met two of these children later in their lives. My great aunt later became a nun and lived the rest of her life in relative seclusion until she died in 1972. Her sole surviving daughter also became a nun and her two son’s went on to have children and grand children.

  23. A lovely novel whose setting is Nebraska during the epidemic is The Meaning of Names. It’s a great companion piece to Barry’s nonfiction book.

  24. My mother brought the flu home from 3rd grade and her two sisters, brother and mother became sick. This was in Claremont, NH, in January, 1919. Her older brother, Frederick, became very sick but was recovering when he decided to go into a cold pantry for something to eat, got chilled, and relapsed. Mother always remembered how sick he looked when their mother had them all go into the room to see him. The room was kept very cold as they thought then it was healthier for it to be cold. She always felt guilty for being the one who brought the flu home. Frederick died January 19, 1919, aged 15.

  25. My father’s half sister’s family was hit. Her husband died,and she and her 6 year old daughter caught it also, and were not expected to survive, but did. There are photos of the husband’s funeral, since none of them could attend

  26. May 1919, the 3rd Spanish Flu wave took the lives of Michael and Lizzie Muschko in Allentown, Pa. Making my grandmother, Jennie Muschko, and her siblings, orphans.

  27. My grandfather was a Dr.that treated many people with this deadly disease back in Kentucky.

  28. My father Charles R. Carlen at age seven, lost both his parents to the flu while living in the in the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois. Both he and his sister June were sent to live with an aunt in California. I have repeatedly tried to find more information on my grandparents to no avail. I have so little to work with.
    The family name was originally Olsen or Olhson, but was changed by immigrations.

  29. My great grandfather was working in the oil fields in Burkburnett, Willbarger County, Texas when the Spanish Flu came through and killed many people. He was buried in a mass grave with others. I have never been able to find that grave. He died September 1919.

    1. So sorry. It’s one thing when we loose someone but even more devastating when we can’t further our family tree when there is an unknown or emptiness

  30. My grandmother died of the flu epedimic in NYC, Oct.9,1918, age 25, leaving 3 children. Unfortunately we were never told anything about the circumstances. The family always chose not to discuss the tragedies with the comment, “ it’s a closed book! “ . Mother was adopted and raised lovingly by one of her mother’s sisters but sadly was never told anything about her father. I finally just found him through Ancestry a few months ago. Both of his parents came from incredible pioneer families full of history but Mom was deprived of knowing any of it…

  31. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has proven that the “Spanish flu” it was not a virus or flu, but a common upper respiratory bacteria that was transformed into massive infection and then deadly pneumonias by the immune suppressing effect of aspirin.
    Aspirin killed people, not a virus.
    Dr. Karen Starko’s research shows that “Aspirin advertisements in August 1918 and a series of official recommendations for aspirin in September and early October preceded the death spike of October 1918.”
    “The number of deaths in the United increased steeply, peaking first in the Navy in late September, then in the Army in early October, and finally in the general population in late October.”
    In 2009, The New York Times reported:
    “Aspirin packages were produced containing no warnings about toxicity and few instructions about use. In the fall of 1918, facing a widespread deadly disease with no known cure, the surgeon general and the United States Navy recommended aspirin as a symptomatic treatment, and the military bought large quantities of the drug.
    “The Journal of the American Medical Association suggested a dose of 1,000 milligrams every three hours, the equivalent of almost 25 standard 325-milligram aspirin tablets in 24 hours. This is about twice the daily dosage generally considered safe today.”
    In 1918, the convergence of a toxic drug, massive corporate advertising, and government, military and medical pressure to use the drug, led to tens of millions of deaths.
    The CDC has put out a view of the 1918 deaths which is a complete science fiction. It doesn’t fit with either historical or biologic data. Nor does their “virulent virus” view answer the lingering questions around 1918 – such as why young people died or why people died so quickly. Both are answered by Dr. Karen Starko’s work on aspirin use and overdose during 1918.

    1. This is fascinating, Kris Ahern. I wonder if it is in John Barry’s book, which I have requested from the library…guess I’ll find out.

  32. My maternal grandmother was pregnant with my mother at the time in 1918 and her first child, a boy named Walton, age 18 months died from the flu in November 1918. My mother was born in January 1919.

  33. My grandmother died from this ‘flu in 1918 as a single parent aged 36. Her illegitimate 12 year-old daughter slept in the same bed and when found by relatives they presumed both were dead. The doctor called to confirm this before the call to ‘bring out your dead!’ was responded to, looked closer and said ‘no, there’s life still in the girl!’ Thanks doc! -Alan

  34. My grandmother died from this ‘flu in 1918 as a single parent aged 36. Her illegitimate 12 year-old daughter slept in the same bed and when found by relatives they presumed both were dead. The doctor called to confirm this before the call to ‘bring out your dead!’ was responded to, looked closer and said ‘no, there’s life still in the girl!’ Thanks doc! -Alan

  35. My great grandmother’s little brother died in the 1918 pandemic, in Portland, Oregon. His death certificate shows “Auditorium Hospital.” The city used its auditorium as a temporary hospital for the poor. The Oregon Daily Journal of 18 October 1918 states there were then about 40 influenza patients at Portland’s Auditorium Hospital.

  36. I had a friend, born in Jack or Clay County, Texas in 1905. Her father was a doctor in 1918. After he and one sister died from the flu, her mother sold their two story house. Two older sisters and her mother found jobs at the Bell Telephone in Dallas while the younger children went to live at the Masonic Orphans Home in Fort Worth. They were not abandoned by their mother, but she could not support them.

  37. Hope as they got older they were reunited. It’s a shame what families had to do back then, but least there was some true support.

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