According to the numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, over five million souls died in WWI, excluding prisoners of war or missing persons. This is admittedly an incredibly high number, but it pales in comparison to the estimated 50 to 100 million more people the world over who lost their lives to the especially virulent influenza pandemic of 1918.
With modern medicinal practice still in its infancy, many misunderstood how individuals could contract and spread this illness, and often misdiagnosed it given its similarity to the common cold. It was originally thought that a certain bacteria – Pfeiffer’s bacillus – was the culprit, though no autopsies were able to find it in any of the bodies. The virus was not isolated until 1930 – far after the Spanish Flu would wreak havoc on the world’s population, eventually taking out 3-5% of it. Congress would give one million dollars to help combat the disease; an extremely generous amount of money for the time. Of the total fatalities, over 675,000 were Americans, and in 1918, average life expectancy drastically fell by 12 years.
Authorities gave all sorts of advice to increase the public’s chances of survival, from eating raw onions (a general disease-preventer) to not wearing any tight clothing, to drinking “clabber”, a thick, soured milk that was said to kill influenza germs with the power of lactic acid. Otherwise, those who contracted the virus had a decent chance of dying in one to fourteen days.
Spitting in public became a highly punishable offense. Streets were flushed, and being out amongst people was generally regarded as being a bad idea. Gauze masks were recommended, which while helpful for stopping bacterial diseases are not as useful in fighting and containing a virus.
The pandemic left almost as quickly as it arrived, vanishing almost into oblivion by the summer of 1919.
“Across the nation, hundreds of thousands of personal tragedies. . . changed the lives of those who survived,” wrote doctors of the time in a public health journal. “Children were orphaned, a disproportionate number of young adults died, and for a brief period fear, suspicion, and panic prevailed. Yet even in this trying context,” they said, “the historical record reveals that many Americans responded courageously during the crisis.”