Skip To Content

    15 Fascinating Facts About The 1918 Flu Pandemic That Are Relevant Today

    One in three people around the world were infected.

    1. Five hundred million people β€” or a third of the entire world's population at the time β€” were infected and fell ill.


    This influenza pandemic happened over the course of 1918 and 1919.

    2. Even the then-president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, caught it β€” and so did future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

    Hulton Archive / Getty Images

    Wilson fell ill while at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, negotiating the way forward for the world after World War I. If he'd died during this critical time, it would have dramatically changed the future. Wilson's daughter Margaret and much of his staff also got sick.

    Roosevelt β€” then the assistant secretary of the Navy β€” was infected while on a voyage to France aboard the USS Leviathan. Roosevelt became very ill but survived after being returned home to the States.

    3. All told, the total number of people who died of the flu is between 50 million and 100 million.

    Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

    The fatality rate was more than 2.5%, which was much worse than other influenza pandemics, which had a fatality rate of less than 0.1%

    4. Nearly 70% of those deaths β€” something like 35 million to 70 million people! β€” happened over just 10 weeks in the fall of 1918.

    Cybercobra / Via

    5. In just the United States, around 675,000 people died from the flu in one year β€” about the same number who have died of AIDS in the US in almost 40 years.

    G. Adams / Getty Images

    6. Famous people who died of the virus include former first lady Rose Cleveland, major league baseball player Larry Chappell, and silent film star Myrtle Gonzalez.

    Public domain, Major League Baseball Hall of Fame

    7. The pandemic came to be known as the "Spanish flu," but it didn't actually start in Spain at all.

    Hulton Archive / Getty Images

    When this new strain of influenza first hit Europe in early 1918, it spread throughout military camps on both sides of World War I. Despite this, the governments involved in the war kept it a secret because they feared that acknowledging their troops were sick could help the enemy.

    That's where Spain came in. Since it was a neutral country, it had no need to hide the truth when its people got sick, so the Spanish government and media reported what was happening. Later, when the flu was everywhere, Spain's early candor made everyone think it originated there, but that wasn't the case.

    8. In fact, no one actually knows where the virus started.


    Historians have theories, but nothing has ever been established definitively.

    9. The refusal of the US government to tell the truth about the virus is a big part of why it spread so dramatically.

    Howard Chandler Christy / Via National Library of Congress

    As World War I entered its fourth year (1918), the US government was intent on keeping up morale. So there was a lot of pressure to stifle negative news, and that included news about the virus. Wilson made no statements about the virus, and the surgeon general told Americans there was "no cause for alarm."

    10. Nearly 13,000 people died in Philadelphia alone, largely because of the government's secrecy in an effort to keep up morale.

    A.R. Coster / Getty Images

    In September of 1918, 300 sailors returned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and within two weeks, 600 sailors were hospitalized with the flu. Local physicians called for a quarantine, but there was a military parade coming up β€” one the government hoped would help improve sales of war bonds β€” so no quarantine happened.

    Two hundred thousand people attended the parade on Sept. 28. Within three days, 117 Philadelphians were dead from influenza.

    11. This virus killed not just the very young and old but also healthy teenagers and young adults β€” and many died just hours or days after first experiencing symptoms.

    Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

    It's believed that young people at that time in history hadn't been exposed to earlier influenza viruses, so they didn't have antibodies that would help them fight the virus.

    12. The 1918 flu was an H1N1 virus, like the swine flu of 2009.

    Afp / Getty Images

    However, the 1918 flu was of avian origin (or, in plain speak, it came from birds instead of pigs).

    13. The American health system was severely overburdened, especially with so many nurses overseas because of the war.

    Public domain

    There was a desperate need for more nurses, and as the number of sick grew, the Red Cross even used untrained volunteers in many situations (despite the fact that there were many trained black nurses who could've helped but weren't asked).

    Later, hospitals were so overtaxed that makeshift hospitals sprouted up at schools, private homes, and other buildings.

    14. People who got the flu experienced severe fatigue, fever, and headaches. Many also suffered from a cough so severe they would turn blue, tear abdominal muscles from coughing, and bleed from the mouth, nose, and sometimes ears.

    Edward A. "Doc" Rogers / Via Public domain

    15. There were three waves of the flu in 1918–19: first in the spring, the second in the fall, and the third in winter.

    CDC / Via

    Pandemics like the 1918 flu have taught us that remaining vigilant about prevention and not loosening precautions too soon is key to saving lives.

    Nostalgia Trip

    Take a trip down memory lane that’ll make you feel nostalgia AF

    Newsletter signup form