A look back on the pandemic which struck the world 102 years ago: Spanish Influenza

An Oct. 11, 1918 copy of the Dawson County Pioneer makes first mention of the Spanish Influenza, wildly speculating the new disease is part of some German strategy to win World War I. At this point the virus was novel to most, but as people began to die from the disease, it was to be taken more seriously.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part story about the 1918 influenza pandemic. Local information about the pandemic was gathered with the help of the Dawson County Historical Museum.

LEXINGTON — The outbreak of COVID-19, known as the coronavirus, has been called unprecedented, but it’s not. A little over a hundred years ago, one of the deadliest pandemics struck the world, one which nearly killed as many people as did the First World War.

It was the 1918 influenza pandemic

Today, no one is quite sure where the virus originated, some have speculated a military base in Kansas, a British army base in France or northern China.

What is known is the pandemic was caused by the H1N1 virus, which was also responsible for the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

It was a true pandemic, infecting 500 million people, 27 percent of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is thought to be anywhere between 17 million to 50 million. If the higher numbers are true, then the pandemic killed more people than World War 1 did, which saw a total number of deaths around 20 million.

That the virus should follow on the coattails of one of the most deadly wars in human history is especially egregious. The close quarters of militaries and troop movements gave the virus highways in which to travel and infect people far easier.

There is also speculation the war increased the deadliness of the virus. Soldiers, weakened by undernourishment, as well as the stress of combat and chemical attacks, weakened their immune systems and made them especially susceptible. Countries like Germany were suffering under blockade and starvation was effecting the populace, a perfect storm for the deadly virus.

“Spanish,” being attached to this flu virus is a bit of a misnomer. In an effort to maintain morale, wartime censors minimized early reports of the illness and mortality in places like Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United States.

Papers in neutral Spain were free to report on the pandemics effects, such as when the virus sickened King Alfonso XIII. The result was to give the false impression Spain had been particularly hit hard, and gave rise to the nickname by which it is known today, Spanish flu.

In the United States, the disease was first observed in Haskell County, Kan., in January 1918. By March a company cook at Fort Riley came down with the disease, the first recorded victim of the flu. Within days 552 men at the camp had also became sick.

Little was done to stop movement from the camp, and the flu rode the rails, reaching New York by March 11.

This first wave of the flu resembled typical flu epidemics, infecting the sick and elderly, while younger, healthier people recovered easier. But a second wave, featuring a mutated version of the virus, struck with a vengeance in the fall of 1918. It began to kill young adults as easily as it did the elderly.

October 1918 was the deadliest month of the entire pandemic and this is when it reached Nebraska and Lexington.

“Spanish Influenza the new disease,” was the title of an article in Oct. 11, 1918 edition of the Dawson County Pioneer. The article’s author couldn’t help but speculate, “Is this mysterious infection of German origin,” thinking it to be a new asymmetrical German war offensive.

They go on to call the theory, “hardly conceivable,” but it highlights the speculation which took place with the arrival of the disease, not unlike the speculation around COVID-19 which circulates social media.

The article continues, “Smitten as from a bolt from the clear sky, thousands of Americans have been suddenly prostrated in many widely separated parts of the country, during the past ten days, by a disease which is called, apparently for want of a better name, ‘Spanish Influenza,’ naturally under all the circumstances there is much speculation regarding the matter.”

The article concludes, “It is important, however, at all times and certainly no less important now, for each individual to secure prompt medical attention for all cases…this is necessary for the conservation of the health of the community as well as the welfare of the individual.”

In the same Oct. 11 edition, there was a proclamation printed from Lexington’s mayor, E.A. Cook.

It read, “In view of the seriousness of the Spanish Influenza where it gets well developed, and in the interest of the health and safety of our citizens, it is deemed best by the board of health of the city of Lexington, to at once, close all churches, theaters, schools lodges and all places of public gathering until further notice.”

Cook’s proclamation ended with, “I call upon all citizens to assist in the strict observance of his order. We may each do much to lessen the danger of the sickness. Avoid too much congregating of people on the streets, or in hotels or restaurants.”

Unfortunately, the disease was already spreading throughout the county, claiming lives.

The obituaries showed the toll of the virus, in one edition of the Pioneer, it featured two people who had died of the Spanish flu and another who perished from pneumonia, a common way people died from the flu in fast moving cases.

John L. Winters, 27-years-old, John F. Pickerill, 35-years-old and Howard D. Smith, 31-years-old, all were young men who had succumbed to the deadly new strain of the virus.

In fact, a Lexington undertakers register shows from Oct. 22, 1918 to Nov. 15, there were seven people who died of influenza, all between the ages of 25 and 32.

A later edition of the Dawson County Herald tried to assure readers, “The Spanish ‘flu’ in Lexington is making but little headway and but few new cases have made their appearance the past week in the city. The majority of cases reported come from the country.”

The obituary of a young solider tells of how he succumbed to the illness in camp.

Private Guy Adams, who had lived on a farm near Overton, died at Fort Riley, the location where the first case of the virus was recorded, on Oct. 17, 1918.

His parents received a telegram, informing them of Guy’s illness, he contracted the Spanish flu and then developed pneumonia. He was only 25-years-old at the time of his death.

One interesting note was of families who had lost members in military service wearing black armbands with gold stars, to differentiate their loss from those families who had lost members to the influenza.

As October progressed, items appeared in the Dawson County Herald trying to assail people’s fears.

One well intending, but misinformed item said the Spanish Influenza was, “nothing new, simply the old grip or La Grippa, was an epidemic in 1889-90, only then it was carried from Russia by way of France and this time by way of Spain.”

Despite the well intention, people continued to die.

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