On March 11, 1918, nearly one year into America’s involvement in World War I, the country reported its first case of a new illness at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas. This disease, an H1N1 strain of the flu virus, came to be known as the 1918 Spanish flu—a misleading moniker for an illness that neither emerged nor is believed to have originated in Spain.
The movement of war, with thousands of troops crossing oceans and borders, played a primary role in the global spread of the virus. It is estimated that one-third of the world’s population was infected with the 1918 flu, with a global death rate of at least 50 million—more than the military and civilian casualties of the war itself.
And while the war itself was not fought on American soil, it contributed to the spread of the virus from state to state. Including Camp Funston, 24 out of 36 large army training camps across the U.S., housing between 25,000 and 55,000 soldiers, experienced influenza outbreaks, sickening troops and spilling over into the communities where these camps resided.
It is estimated that 675,000 Americans died during the 1918 influenza pandemic, and until September 2021, when COVID-19 deaths surpassed that number, it was the deadliest pandemic in American history in terms of mortality sums. While it is natural to want to compare the severity of these two diseases, particularly within the context of total deaths, it is important to do so with caution. The 1918 flu killed roughly 1 in 150 Americans; COVID-19 kills 1 in 500 Americans, according to the most recent total death data from Johns Hopkins University.
There are, however, undeniable parallels between COVID-19 and the 1918 flu, in both their trajectories and America’s response. Waves of illness, health care staffing shortages, prohibitions of public gatherings, shutdowns of commerce, and mask mandates (and resistance), are all echoes of the 1918 pandemic that we have heard and experienced a century later.
To understand the impact of the 1918 flu in America, Stacker cited National Vital Statistics System mortality data between 1910-1925, digitized by the National Bureau of Economic Research, to look at how states were affected by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
Our chart shows how flu mortality surged due to the prominence of the Spanish flu. Because mortality data does not differentiate between influenza and Spanish flu deaths, average flu deaths before 1918 provide a baseline comparison for how the Spanish flu hit each state.
Where available, 1910-17 averages are used, but due to inconsistencies in annual data across states, flu deaths in 1918-20 are compared to a shorter time frame in certain states and are noted as such. Historic flu mortality data was available for 30 states.
You may also like: History of the supermarket industry in America