Inside the swift, deadly history of the Spanish Flu pandemic

Before SARS and coronavirus, Spanish flu infected a third of the world’s population and killed as many as 50 million in the waning years of World War I.

Chicago theaters displayed posters like this one to slow the spread of the Spanish flu during the 1918 pandemic.
SPL/AGE FOTOSTOCK

Scientist Johan Hultin traveled to Brevig Mission, Alaska, a town of a few hundred souls in the summer of 1997. He was searching for buried bodies, and Alaska’s frozen ground was the perfect place to find them. Digging through the permafrost—with permission from the town’s authorities—he eventually uncovered a woman who died almost 80 years previously and was in a state of excellent preservation. Hultin then extracted samples of the woman’s lung before reinterring her. He intended to use this to decode the genetic sequence of the virus that had killed this Inuit woman along with 90 percent of the town’s population.

Brevig Mission was just one place that was part of a global tragedy, one of the worst ever to befall humanity: the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. The outbreak of this influenza virus, also known as Spanish flu, spread with astonishing speed around the world, overwhelming India, and reaching Australia and the remote Pacific islands. In just 18 months at least a third of the world’s population was infected. Estimates on the exact number of fatalities vary wildly, from 20 million to 50 million to 100 million deaths. If the upper end of that estimate is accurate, the 1918 pandemic killed more people than both World Wars put together. (Get the facts on influenza.)

Several closely related viruses cause influenza, but one strain (type A) is linked to deadly epidemics. The 1918-19 pandemic was caused by an influenza A virus known as H1N1. Despite becoming known as the Spanish flu, the first recorded cases were in the United States in the final year of World War I. (Explore the memorials of World War I.)

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