Kansas WW1

Commemorating the First World War Centennial in Kansas

Unknown Enemy: The Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920

Where did it originate? 

hospital

Black and white photograph of Garfield School in Topeka, Kansas, serving as an emergency hospital, possibly during the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Date: Between 1918 and 1919

The Spanish Influenza outbreak started, not in Spain like the name would lead you to believe, but was traced to Camp Funston, Kansas. The Spanish Flu started in March 1918 and continued through June 1920. More than 25 percent of the US population became sick, and some 675,000 Americans died during the pandemic. If we take every combat casualty since the American Revolution to the Gulf War it would still not total the number of Americans killed by the Spanish Influenza pandemic. The flu spread to all corners of the world from the United States, Europe, Asia, Pacific Islands, and even the Arctic. Many sources refer to this viral infection as an epidemic, but generally an epidemic is slightly more infectious than predicted in a single region. This outbreak was officially a pandemic because the outbreak occurred in several regions across the world. It is becoming easier for epidemics to become pandemics due to globalization. The research of Spanish Flu has been beneficial to scientists, historians, and governments to develop a response to the threat of pandemics globally.

How was this Influenza different?

The common flu is caused by the influenza virus which is broken into three categories: Type A, Type B, and Type C. The flu is spread most commonly through the air by coughs or sneezes. The common flu targets juvenile, elderly, or already weakened patients. However, through a mutation in the strain of the Type A flu virus, the Spanish Influenza targeted healthy young adults. The flu continued to mutate and change throughout the course of the pandemic. The early cases of Spanish Flu were far less deadly than the strain that was spread through 1919. Researchers have discovered that this strain of influenza virus had invaded patient’s lungs and caused pneumonia. The young adult immune system would violently attack the pneumonia and cause substantial damage to the lungs resulting in death.

memorial

A photograph showing a monument erected at Engineers Canyon, Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas, memorializing 10th Sanitary Train soldiers who died in the flu epidemic. Brubaker is photographed with the monument. Date: Between 1918 and 1920

Kansas and the Flu:

Camp Funston was established in 1917 at Fort Riley to train soldiers going to Europe in WWI. Camp Funston has been determined, by some epidemiologists, as ground zero for the outbreak. Others have claimed that the virus had started in China, but the strain mutated in Kansas to become what we now label as Spanish Influenza. The cause of the rapid mutation of the influenza virus was due to the close quarters and poor sanitation in the camp. A cook from Camp Funston became sick and from that initial case close to 1100 soldiers developed symptoms. The virus then moved to training posts, spread to cities, and soldiers were then deployed to Europe and spread the flu on shipping lanes. Europe was a perfect breeding ground for the virus due to the combat stress, lack of food, and weakened immune systems of Europeans. War bonds gatherings increased opportunity for spread of flu in the United States.

The “Spanish flu” got its name as a result of wartime censorship of the media in Central and Allied Powers countries. Spain was not involved in the conflict so they were reporting the spread of the flu in their newspapers. The public generally associated the virus with Spain. A more appropriate name for the virus would be the “Funston flu.” Locally, close to 12,000 died in Kansas in one month and 188 deaths in Topeka in one day.

influenza

An illustration published by the Topeka Health Service of Shawnee County, showing precautions to combat and prevent the further spread of influenza. Date: Between 1920 and 1930

The End?                                                                               

The Spanish Influenza virus never had a vaccine developed. The reduction of infection and spread was due to new theories in hygiene and germ theory. One leader, Dr. Chester Stocks of Bushong, Kansas, pioneered new developments in hygiene to combat the infection. Some of these new theories were simply washing your hands, not sneezing or coughing on people, and not spitting in public. Federal funding and Resources for the disposal of bodies was also important to ending the outbreak of the Spanish Influenza in Kansas.

The lesson taught by the Spanish Influenza outbreak is that in global society epidemics and pandemics will occur. We have had many examples recently in bird flu and swine flu. However, knowledge about hygiene, germ theory, and adequate funding to public health departments have kept the major pandemics at bay, and possibly averted even more Spanish Flu-like outbreaks.

 

Ryan Leimkuehler is the Government Records Archivist of the Kansas State Historical Society. He evaluates records for preservation and retention, trains staff in records management, and advises researchers on topics of interest in Kansas. He is a past high school and secondary education instructor and has a passion for teaching.

3 Comments

  1. Adrienne Landry Dunavin

    September 23, 2016 at 6:21 pm

    Love this – Great post!!

  2. Henry N Reisig

    July 26, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    I only recently became interested in my father’s military history after seeing a shaving mirror and canvas cover on which he had written “Pvt Henry Reisig, Co. E 20th Infantry, Camp Funston, KS” If you have any information in your archives that would provide additional information, I would appreciate receiving it.

    • Thanks for your request. Ryan Leimkuehler is no longer at the Historical Society; your e-mail was forwarded to KSHS Reference.

      You may also wish to contact Jonathan Casey, the Archivist at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

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