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Influenza Pandemic: 1919

Influenza Pandemic: 1919

Washington, D.C., circa 1919. "Walter Reed Hospital flu ward." One of the very few images in Washington-area photo archives documenting the influenza contagion of 1918-1919, which killed over 500,000 Americans and tens of millions around the globe. Harris & Ewing glass negative. View full size.


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America's Forgotten Pandemic

There's a wonderful book about the pandemic of 1918, and the medical and social response to it: "America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918" by Alfred Crosby. Well worth a read.


Do you suppose the photographer thought this would be one of the very first ... flu shots?

Pneumonia, Too

Considering how easily it can happen again, and how little was known at the time, ongoing research now identifies pneumona as the real culprit:

The majority of deaths during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 were not caused by the influenza virus acting alone, report researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. Instead, most victims succumbed to bacterial pneumonia following influenza virus infection. The pneumonia was caused when bacteria that normally inhabit the nose and throat invaded the lungs along a pathway created when the virus destroyed the cells that line the bronchial tubes and lungs.

A devastating epidemic

One of the unusual features about this pandemic was that it tended to strike down those in the prime of life. Usually it's the young and very old who suffer the most. Not so with this flu. I've read that researcher/historians believe that this flu unleashed a cytokine storm on the body. Nasty business that, and not much hope when it happens.

Face masks

It's pretty much a fallacy to think any kind of face mask will protect you from being infected with something like the flu -- viruses generally aren't floating around in the air waiting for you to breathe them in, unless you're in some confined space like an airplane cabin where people are doing a lot of sneezing. And even then, a mask would do about as good a job keeping the virus out of your lungs as it would keeping air out of your lungs -- pretty much not at all. In a hospital situation where an infected patient is expelling virus particles in close proximity to a caregiver -- sneezing, coughing, vomiting, etc. -- glasses or goggles would be just as important as a face mask, maybe even more so.

Virus particles are much more likely to be on surfaces -- an infected person's skin, or something he touched: a doorknob, keyboard, whatever. Then you touch that doorknob and put your finger to your eye, or in your mouth, or pick up a fork to eat lunch. It's almost always your own finger that infects you.

Where the face mask really belongs is on people who are already infected.

Protected nurses

When I was at university I had a part-time job working in a hospital. Someone in the office found a picture of a number of doctors and nurses, maybe fifteen in total, standing in front of the old hospital building, each of them wearing a mask over the mouth. Four or five of the nurses and two of the doctors had X's under their pictures. None was wearing gloves. On the back of the photo was a note saying the X's marked staff members who had caught the flu during the epidemic and died.

My boss (one of the pathologists) pointed out that they might have all lived had they worn their masks over their noses too, like the nurses in this photo are doing.

More Recently

I was in the Army stationed at Fort Devens, Mass., in the mid 1950s. There was a flu epidemic that winter and our barracks were set up the same way. Blankets were hung between the bunks. We were given flu shots and we all survived. Stone Age medicine.

Mail Call

I think he wants to know what his temp is. But look, he's got letters and a package or two; and a comfy chenille set of pjs and fresh air--they are doing what they can!

Flu Notice


        Patients occupying porches facing in the Annex [?] will comport themselves at all times in a quiet, orderly manner. No xxxing, loud talking or loud laughing will be indulged in by anyone on these porches. Under no circumstances [?] will patients ill with xxxxxxxx of the ward. This order will be strictly complied with.
        By order of the Commanding Officer.

H.K. Richardson [?], Capt., XXX



The guy's face is insanely expressive, and I'm guessing pretty indicative of the times.

Also, I wonder what that notice above his bed reads.

No gloves

Wonder how many nurses fell ill due to this kind of exposure. Bless them for not fleeing from a fate they knew could be theirs any minute.


Wish we could read the notice tacked on the wall.

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