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Infectious Diseases

We Have Come a Long Way Since Spanish Flu – Photographs from the 1918 Pandemic

Posted on 6 March 2020

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In the closing year of the first world war, influenza spread across the globe with shocking speed, infecting 27% of the world’s population, and killing around 50 million people – more than the war itself. With the rapid rise in coronavirus cases in developed countries, it is worth remembering how far the medical world has come in the last 100 years. At the time of the outbreak, the origin of Spanish flu was not know, and is still a matter of debate today. Hospitals were overwhelmed, and mass graves were needed to dispose of the dead. We are now much better equipped to track and control the spread of epidemics, and many drugs and vaccines are already under development or being trialled.

Policemen wearing protective masks in Seattle, Washington, 1918
Red Cross workers wearing masks, Seattle, 1918

Emergency hospitals and quarantine camps were set up to deal with the rise in cases:

People arriving at a quarantine camp in Wallangarra, Australia, 1919
An emergency hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA, October 1918
Emergency hospital, Kansas, 1918

In the trenches, influenza spread from camp to camp, killing injured soldiers in particular. Within the US military, more succumbed to influenza and pneumonia than to battle injuries. Soldiers returning from war also played a major role in the spread of Spanish flu.

American soldiers in Seattle on their way to France, December 1918
Boxing match on board the U.S.S. Siboney, transporting troops to France, 1918-1919
Soldiers gargle salt water, New Jersey, 1918
A doctor sprays a soldier’s throat to prevent influenze, Texas, 1918
Graves of U.S. soldiers who died of influenza in Devon, England.

To limit the spread of the virus, public events were encouraged to be held outdoors:

Court held outside, San Francisco, 1918
Physics class, University of Montana, 1919
The congregation prays on the steps of the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco

Today, detailed advice about how to limit the spread of coronavirus and what to do if you catch it is but a google search away. In 1918, distributing this information was harder – even radio was not yet widely available.

A notice cautioning theatre-goers
Warning at an aircraft factory in Philadelphia

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