Influenza: the Terror of 1918
It started slowly, with one patient at a time. Trickling slowly from military bases to small towns, from small towns to large cities, it gathered speed and devastated with an unrelenting ferocity. For one year it ravaged the nation, distorting the American way of life and creating a landscape of fear.
One hundred years later, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919 reads like something out of a horror story. We are just now beginning to grasp the effects of the disease, but it is possible that we will never fully understand. How — in a single year of the twentieth century — did a disease wipe out 50 million deaths around the globe, 650,000 of whom were Americans?
The origin of the virus is still largely a mystery. In March of 1918, reports emerged of disease-stricken soldiers in Kansas. It started as 100, then grew to 500 infected soldiers. But the next six months saw only sporadic reports of influenza around the country, mainly in the close confines of military camps. There was no reason to worry — out of the 500 infected soldiers, only a handful of deaths were reported.
And so the summer passed on, Americans blissfully unaware of the danger lurking among them. It was not until the beginning of September, when the temperature cooled and autumn approached, that the influenza reared its ugly head.
September — 14,000 cases are reported at a U.S. Army training camp near Boston. October — hundreds of thousands of Americans contract the virus, resulting in 195,000 deaths in that month alone. The disease spread from the Boston down the eastern seaboard, striking Washington D.C., Atlanta, and other cities. In Atlanta, the city temporarily shut down all activities to stop the spread of the virus. After 2,000 cases were reported in early October, all churches, schools, and theaters were closed for the entire month. “Public Gathering Places Closed by City Council for Two Months,” the headline of the Atlanta Constitution read on October 8, 1918.
The terrifying numbers tell only half of the story. The true details can be seen in the personal narratives of survivors of the event, many of whom were children when they witnessed the epidemic’s outbreak.
In a 2006 interview with NBC, William H. Sardo Jr. recalled the events from when he was a boy. “There was a…