The Deadliest Killer of All Time
THE flu of 1918 and 1919 was the greatest influenza epidemic to hit the earth in recorded history. This ghastly pestilence spread to people almost everywhere. In a relatively few weeks it killed more people than perished in World War I.
Most of the deaths took place in a few months of a single year! Said one authority: ‘Had the epidemic continued its mathematical rate of acceleration, civilization would easily have disappeared from the earth within a matter of a few more weeks.’
Its Start and Spread
The flu first struck in the spring of 1918. It was relatively mild, a case lasting about three days. But in the fall of that year the deadly variety showed up. It was noted that those who earlier had the “three-day flu” generally seemed to be immune to the “killer germs.”
Some said the flu epidemic got started in Spain, thus the name “Spanish influenza.” Madrid, Spain, was hard hit by the flu in May of 1918. However, the flu had been seen in China and in the United States in March of 1918. Actually, no one seems to know precisely where it got started or how.
Boston is viewed as the starting point of the deadly flu in the United States. In a few days it spread rapidly down the east coast. Almost simultaneously, the flu struck army camps throughout the country. Camp Grant, at Rockford, Illinois, was hard pressed with ten thousand abed. In twenty-four hours, 115 soldiers had died. The figure approximated the highest day’s average of Americans killed in battle.
Pennsylvania was the hardest hit state, with more than one third of a million cases and 10,000 deaths in less than two weeks. In Philadelphia, two hundred bodies were stuffed into a morgue built for thirty-six. The dead were piled three and four deep in the corridors and rooms. Most were unembalmed, so the stench ran high in the unchilled rooms. When there was a sudden shortage of coffins in the city, a street railway repair shop was converted into a coffin factory.
Throughout all the earth it spread. In one remote Central African region a British colonial officer reported finding villages of 300 to 500 families wiped out by the flu. Jungle growth was taking over again. Reports from northern Persia stated that in village after village there were no survivors. Many Eskimo villages in Alaska were wiped out to the last man and child. To the islands of the Pacific it went. In Tahiti, where 4,500 persons died in fifteen days, bodies were piled upon constantly burning pyres.
It is believed that only two places in the world escaped the worldwide epidemic: St. Helena, an island of less than fifty square miles in the South Atlantic, and Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean.
The Meaning of It
But of what significance to us is a pestilence of some fifty years ago? Well, relatively few persons today realize that that flu epidemic of 1918-1919 was a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. Jesus Christ foretold that the “sign” of the “last days,” which would precede the grand blessings of his Kingdom rule, would be marked by unmistakable events. Among these would be widespread food shortages, earthquakes and “in one place after another pestilences.” (Luke 21:7, 10, 11) Further, Jesus explained: “All these things are a beginning of pangs of distress.” (Matt. 24:8) So that flu epidemic in 1918-1919 was only a beginning. Despite modern medical technology, cancer, heart disease—yes, and the flu—still ravage the earth.
Never before has the world seen “deadly plague” along with the other prophesied happenings on such a global scale as it has since 1914. (Rev. 6:3-8) The “pangs of distress” have been with us for well over fifty years now and we need to remember that Jesus said: “When you see these things occurring, know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away until all things occur.” (Luke 21:31, 32) So, the meaning for our day is that only a short time is left before the end of this wicked system of things.
Recollections of the Pestilence
Of course, many persons reading this were not alive at the time of that epidemic of 1918-1919. They may find it difficult to grasp the magnitude of what occurred. Yet there are people alive today who lived then, and it is interesting to know what their recollections are. One survivor said: “Everywhere the pattern appeared the same. The flu began with a high fever and aching bones. The fever lasted up to five days. If there were no complications, recovery generally was quick, although some persons complained of being terribly weak afterward. Others said it affected their heart, or injured their kidneys or lungs. Great numbers of persons, after four days of the flu, developed pneumonia, and this caused their death.”
Many survivors of the pestilence report a most unusual aspect about it—the highest death rate was among previously healthy young adults, particularly males. This is in contrast to the usual flu epidemic, when the old and feeble ones are the main victims. “There was this heavyset, healthy-looking fellow,” recalled a farmer from Minnesota. “He got over his mild case of the flu in three days, but went moving around before he should have and the next thing we knew, they were burying him.”
Many were the physically strong men in military service who succumbed. Dr. Ralph C. Williams, a former assistant United States surgeon general, has vivid recollections of those fearsome days: “We were swamped with soldiers, sailors, marines and coastguardsmen. They would just collapse in the streets downtown and were brought out to us. . . . There was a Marine sergeant. He was brought in unconscious and in three hours that man was dead. Just like that. It was common knowledge that between 400 and 500 people were dying (in Chicago) each day. More people were dying than could be buried. It was a fearsome thing.”
The suddenness with which the flu struck took people by surprise. A Brooklyn man said: “Its approach was subtle, and yet so painful. The people did not sense its magnitude; they were not aware of its being so widespread. When they finally awoke to that fact, there was great fear. People were perplexed. They did not know what to make of it.”
So many were the deaths in Australia that a newspaperman said it was impossible to dig individual graves fast enough. The dead were simply lifted out of their houses and deposited in one great pit.
The number of funeral processions seemed endless. An atmosphere of fear, sorrow and depression spread over the earth. “We would see sorrowful persons going to a funeral of a relative or a friend,” said one survivor, “and the next thing we heard was that they, too, had died. It was dreadful.” Another survivor summed it up this way: “Every moment grief seemed to be crashing in on one.”
One of Jehovah’s witnesses vividly recalls those days in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. “We were completely shocked,” she said. “As we went from door to door in the Kingdom ministry, we could see caskets in almost every home. Many persons wouldn’t listen when we tried to comfort them with the message of God’s kingdom. They were too stricken with grief.”
Usually the best advice doctors had to offer their patients was to tell them to rest in bed, keep warm and drink plenty of liquids.
In treating their patients some doctors used novel methods. In Chicago one doctor treated some 600 patients with a grapefruit concoction, which appeared to work. Reportedly, he lost only one patient—his son who left his sickbed to look after his flourishing undertaking business.
“My father and mother and I were all sick in one night,” said a man from Cincinnati, where some 40,000 cases of flu were reported. “My mother had pneumonia and was not expected to live. But a young doctor advised that we fry a big pan of onions and place a real hot poultice on her chest. This my aunt Clara did all night. It sort of pulled my mother out of it. The next morning we knew that she would live.”
In many cities it was impossible to get medical help. In Philadelphia, for example, more than one third of the city’s physicians were themselves in bed.
Almost every precaution imaginable was taken to avoid getting the flu. “Wear fresh pajamas” became the exhortation in some communities. Others were told: “Don’t shake hands.” “Take castor oil.” “Don’t ride the subways.”
In many localities people wore a face mask. At Ann Arbor, University of Michigan students were ordered to wear masks at all times under penalty of suspension. In San Francisco, the mayor published a city-wide ordinance saying everyone should wear a face mask, or be fined $100 or sent to jail for ten days’ isolation. No passengers were allowed to board a Seattle streetcar without wearing a mask.
The New York Public Library stopped circulating books. Many cities forbade barbers to shave their customers, because of the close contact involved. Streets in Dublin were washed down with disinfectants. In Boston, churches closed on Sundays; in many cities, public meetings were banned. Schools, movie houses and saloons were locked up.
In New York “open-faced sneezers” were subject to fines and jail sentences. In Chicago, police were told to “arrest thousands, if necessary, to stop sneezing in public.” The many warnings against sneezing in public no doubt helped in preventing the pestilence from spreading even more. According to medical researchers in Britain, just one sneeze can distribute more than 85,000,000 bacteria. And United States researchers have discovered that a sneeze can hurl up to 4,600 particles into the air at a “muzzle velocity” of 152 feet a second. Often particles are hurled a distance of twelve feet. The particles, which remain suspended in the air for more than a half hour after the sneeze, are not mere harmless droplets of water. One particle or droplet was found to create 19,000 colonies of bacteria. No wonder Canada’s Toronto Telegram reported that it is now known “that the excessive amount of sneezing involved in the flu epidemic of 1918 helped make it the horror it was.”
The pestilence left behind a staggering death toll estimated at between 20,000,000 and 27,000,000. Dr. Edwin Oakes Jordan, a noted American bacteriologist, in his Epiddemic Influenza, published in 1927, cites total deaths due to the influenza as being 21,642,283. Of these nearly 16,000,000 were in Asia, more than 2,000,000 in Europe, more than 1,300,000 in Africa and more than 1,000,000 in North America. South America’s deaths were listed as 327,000. Australia and Oceania together suffered over 1,000,000 deaths.
The flu sent some 500,000,000 persons to bed. The pestilence was particularly dangerous to pregnant women. Thus, in millions of homes, there was double tragedy.
The deadly flu germs disappeared almost as quickly as they came. Where they went remains a medical mystery to this very day. Since the Spanish flu virus was never seen under a microscope of that time, scientists today do not know whether that deadly virus differs in appearance from the Asian flu virus of recent times.
Public health men of that time admitted that all human effort seemed to do nothing to stop the plague and that the most skilled doctors in the world had not been able to limit the epidemic’s duration.
For many persons living then, it may have seemed that the complete end of this system of things foretold by Jesus Christ was immediately at hand. But the events of those days were only “a beginning of pangs of distress.” Yet, as Jesus explained: “This generation will by no means pass away until all these things occur.” That generation of people who were alive during and immediately after World War I is now nearing its close. This fact, coupled with other events of our day, is a strong indication that this system of things is very near its complete end. But what will be your standing when that time arrives? It depends on what you do now to gain a right standing with God.—Matt. 24:3, 8, 34.