The Spanish Flu Pandemic 1918-19

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'The Spanish Flu Pandemic 1918-19' page

A Warning From History

By Julia Lafferty

One hundred years ago, the world was ravaged by a flu pandemic which killed more people than any other disease in recorded history. Just as the First World War was approaching its final phase, the first officially recorded cases of what came to be known as "Spanish Flu" were recorded in March 1918 in the United States at a US Army base in Kansas. Although known as "Spanish Flu" it is now considered that the virus originated in China, but the principal factor in the rapid global spread of the disease was undoubtedly the massive movement of troops around the world. Wartime censorship resulted in reports of the scale of the illness and resulting mortality being minimised in the press in an effort to avoid panic and a loss of morale.   

One of the most celebrated British casualties was Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He was 55 years old in 1918 (by a strange coincidence the same age as our present Prime Minister Boris Johnson). In September of that year Lloyd George had travelled up to Manchester to be presented with the keys to the city when he developed a sore throat and fever and collapsed. He spent the next 10 days too ill to move and confined to bed in Manchester Town Hall with a respirator to aid his breathing.

Amongst other famous figures falling victim to the flu pandemic were US President Woodrow Wilson, Walt Disney and the painter of "The Scream" Edvard Munch who depicted his illness on canvas (above). They all survived but, in the absence of the drugs and antibiotics we have today, millions across the world did not. Amongst those whose lives were claimed by Spanish Flu was 49 year old Frederick Trump, the grandfather of the current US President, who had made his fortune operating a restaurant and brothel during the Yukon Gold Rush.

More people died worldwide during the 1918-19 pandemic than perished as a result of the First World War.  1918 was the first year in recorded history that the death rate in Britain exceeded the birth rate. In 1917 Hackney District had recorded 28 deaths due to influenza.In 1918 influenza deaths soared to 698, and the second wave of the epidemic in 1919 resulted in 165 deaths, However as these statistics did not include the instances of complications resulting from Spanish Flu, such as pneumonia, these figures were undoubtedly an underestimate.  Council workers from Stoke Newington had to act as grave-diggers in Abney Park Cemetery as there had been such an increase in deaths from the flu that the regular staff were completely overwhelmed.

The Hackney Gazette highlighted the fact that too much was being expected of local doctors and criticized the authorities for "much talk but very little 'do'", But even where a doctor was involved there was little that could be done for the flu victim. The most frequently prescribed and popular remedy was whisky, but there is no evidence that it did anything to arrest the progress of the disease.

In August 1918 the epidemic appeared to be abating. However in November of that year, with the War officially over, soldiers coming home from Europe on crowded troop ships bought a new flu outbreak with them. As crowds took to the streets of London to celebrate the Armistice, a second wave of the disease struck which continued during the winter of 1918 and the spring of 1919.  In the period between mid June 1918 and May 1919 there were 16,520 deaths in London registered as being due to influenza. Amongst them was Dr King Warry, the Medical Officer of Health for the Borough of Hackney, who died in March 1919. 

This page was added on 12/04/2020.