The Unnormal – 101 years ago

Ongoing dialogue and reflection in the age of covid-19


Charles Luther Odom
1887-1919
Corporal, Company B, 105th Engineers.
Died of influenza during World War I on March 25, 1919 in St. Moritz France where sick and injured soldiers fighting in the area were sent for medical care. 

In thinking about what is happening in our world today it brings about thoughts of the past. The picture above is of one of my great uncles who fought in WWI and died 101 years ago this month (March 25, 1919) as a result of the influenza pandemic.

While World War I claimed 16 million lives, the influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people (an estimated 675,000 in the US alone). Ultimately, the pandemic would result in an estimated 500 million infections worldwide (~ 1/3 of the world’s population at the time) and a case fatality rate > 2.5%, more than 25 times higher than any other pandemic fifth of the world’s population was attacked by this deadly virus. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history. The plague emerged in two phases. In late spring of 1918, the first phase, known as the “three-day fever,” appeared without warning. Few deaths were reported. Victims recovered after a few days. When the disease surfaced again that fall, it was far more severe. Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify this disease which was striking so fast and so viciously, eluding treatment and defying control. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others succumbed after a few days; their lungs filled with fluid and they suffocated to death.

Reference: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/influenza-epidemic/

Reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6364422/#CR37

“During the American Expeditionary Forces’ campaign at Meuse-Argonne, the epidemic diverted urgently needed resources from combat support to transporting and caring for the sick and the dead. Influenza and pneumonia killed more American soldiers and sailors during the war than did enemy weapons.”

“World War I and influenza collaborated: the war fostered disease by creating conditions in the trenches of France that some epidemiologists believe enabled the influenza virus to evolve into a killer of global proportions.” 

“The virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic, and at the height of the American military involvement in the war, September through November 1918, influenza and pneumonia sickened 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel. These high morbidity rates interfered with induction and training schedules in the United States and rendered hundreds of thousands of military personnel non-effective.”

“One of the tragedies of the influenza epidemic is that by the 1910s, the medical profession held many of the scientific and epidemiological tools to understand the nature and extent of the damage influenza and pneumonia were wreaking on their patients, but lacked the tools to effectively fight them.”

Reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2862337/

Telegram from county food administrator to headquarters, Oklahoma City, regarding cancellation of public meetings, October 3, 1918. U.S. Food Administration. The flu interrupted the activities of the U.S. Food Administration responsible for rationing during World War I. The Administration’s Wilburton, Oklahoma, office cancelled its public meeting because of 300 reported cases of flu in the area.

Though there is still much scientific debate about the origin of the flu, a study conducted in 2004, provided strong evidence for the origin of the flu pandemic. The study determined, “If the virus did not originate in Haskell, there is no good explanation for how it arrived there.”

“Haskell County, Kansas, lay three hundred miles to the west of Funston. There the smell of manure meant civilization. People raised grains, poultry, cattle, and hogs. Sod-houses were so common that even one of the county’s few post offices was located in a dug-out sod home. In 1918 the population was just 1,720, spread over 578 square miles. But primitive and raw as life could be there, science had penetrated the county in the form of Dr. Loring Miner.”

“In late January and early February 1918 Miner was suddenly faced with an epidemic of influenza, but an influenza unlike any he had ever seen before. Soon dozens of his patients – the strongest, the healthiest, the most robust people in the county – were being struck down as suddenly as if they had been shot. Then one patient progressed to pneumonia. Then another. And they began to die.”

“Influenza was neither a reportable disease, nor a disease that any state or federal public health agency tracked. Yet Miner considered this incarnation of the disease so dangerous that he warned national public health officials about it.”

“Haskell County, Kansas, is the first recorded instance anywhere in the world of an outbreak of influenza so unusual that a physician warned public health officials. It remains the first recorded instance suggesting that a new virus was adapting, violently, to man.”

Camp Funston was an Army camp within Haskel County.

“All Army personnel from the county reported to Funston for training…These men, and probably others unnamed by the paper, were exposed to influenza and would have arrived in Funston between February 26 and March 2. On March 4 the first soldier at the camp reported ill with influenza at sick call. The camp held an average of 56,222 troops.”

“Soldiers moved uninterrupted between Funston and the outside world, especially to other Army bases and France…Influenza was erupting in France, first at Brest, the single largest port of disembarkation for American troops.”

Reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC340389/

It is interesting to note the “branding” that was place on the pandemic at the time.

“As Spain was a neutral party in the War, newspapers were able to report on the devastating effects that the 1918 pandemic virus was exhibiting in Spain. Thus, it was generally perceived that this devastating illness originated in Spain, resulting in the pandemic being incorrectly labeled as “the Spanish flu.”

Reference: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6364422/#CR37

An influenza hospital ward in France. 12/28/1918
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/86697895

The current pandemic has some similarities to the 1918-1919 pandemic but it does not appear to be of the same magnitude, but it’s worth considering the connections to the past, as we do not know what the future holds. We have to wonder, how truly different are we from those 100 years prior? When someone looks back on us 100 years from now, what lessons will they have learned, how connected will future generations be to the events of the past?Only time will tell.

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