The first wave of the 1918 pandemic occurred in the spring and was generally mild. The sick, who experienced such typical flu symptoms as chills, fever and fatigue, usually recovered after several days, and the number of reported deaths was low. However, a second, highly contagious wave of influenza appeared with a vengeance in the fall of that same year. Victims died within hours or days of their symptoms appearing, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate. In just one year, 1918, the average life expectancy in America plummeted by a dozen years.
It’s unknown exactly where the particular strain of influenza that caused the pandemic came from; however, the 1918 flu was first observed in Europe, America and areas of Asia before spreading to almost every other part of the planet within a matter of months. Despite the fact that the 1918 flu wasn’t isolated to one place, it became known around the world as the Spanish flu, as Spain was one of the earliest countries to be hit hard by the disease. Even Spain’s king, Alfonso XIII (1886-1931), contracted the flu.
One unusual aspect of the 1918 flu was that it struck down many previously healthy, young people–a group normally resistant to this type of infectious illness–including a number of World War I (1914-18) servicemen. In fact, journalist Gina Kolata has reported that more U.S. soldiers died from the 1918 flu than were killed in battle during the war. Forty percent of the U.S. Navy was hit with the flu, while 36 percent of the Army became ill, notes Kolata in her book on the subject.
Although the death toll attributed to the 1918 flu is often estimated at 20 million to 50 million victims worldwide, other estimates run as high as 100 million victims. The exact numbers are impossible to know due to a lack of medical record-keeping in many places. What is known, however, is that few locations were immune to the 1918 flu–in America, victims ranged from residents of major cities to those of remote Alaskan communities. Even President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) reportedly contracted the flu in early 1919 while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I.