From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Kenneth Davis on the Spanish Flu
On the World War I Centennial News Podcast, we're taking a look back at some of our favorite segments from 2018. On Episode 70, which aired on May 4th, author Kenneth Davis joined the show to discuss the deadly pandemic that swept the world in 1918. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: This week for Remembering Veterans, we're turning our attention away from the battlefield and looking at a phenomena that took more lives than the bullets and shells. With us to explore the story of the flu pandemic from 100 years ago is Kenneth C. Davis, bestselling author of the I Don't Know Much About book series. In fact, during our editorial meeting, when we were discussing the interview, our intern, John, enthused that these books were on his shelf as he was growing up. Well, Kenneth's new book is coming out on May 15th and it's called, More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War. A fascinating subject by a wonderful author. Kenneth, welcome to the podcast.
Kenneth Davis: It is a great pleasure to be with you. Thanks so much for having me.
Theo Mayer: Ken, let's start with the name of this flu pandemic. Patient Zero wasn't in Spain, were they?
Kenneth Davis: No. The Spanish flu was not Spanish. The Spanish flu, as it was known mostly in England and America, the truth is we don't really know even to this date where it originated. Of course, it had other names in different parts of the world. Everyone seems to want to blame someone else for it. The Russians called it the German test, Blacks in South Africa called it the White disease, Whites called it the Black disease. It's an interesting phenomenon. But the Spanish flu came from the idea that Spain was a neutral nation during the war. Its newspapers were not censored, unlike those of most of the Allies, which didn't want to report bad news like flu pandemics. When the Spanish press reported that the King of Spain and many other Spanish people were down with the flu, the name was attached just about 100 years ago. It happened in May of 1918. By that time, American soldiers who were certainly carrying the virus were landing in France in large numbers and they most certainly were responsible for the widespread nature of the flu coming 100 years ago.
Theo Mayer: How big and bad was it? I've heard varying numbers, but whatever they were, what I've heard is staggering in scale.
Kenneth Davis: They are staggering numbers. Right now, the estimates are up to about 100 million people dead worldwide. That includes 18.5 to 20 million in India alone. That's an extraordinary number by itself. It was also 5% of the world population at that time. In the United States, the numbers are now as high in terms of estimates as 675,000 Americans dying. The population of the United States was about a third of what it is today. To try and project those numbers out would be staggering and it was completely related to the war in so many ways. The flu spread rapidly in the army camps, the camp convents as they were called, where young men were preparing to go to the trenches of yore.
Theo Mayer: One question, Ken. Why was it so especially deadly?
Kenneth Davis: Well, what was unusual about this flu was that it was killing young people, young men in particular in the training camps so rapidly and so violently. It is this idea that their immune systems were so powerful and attacked this mutant virus so powerfully that that was the reason the level of mortality was so high. There are reports that sound like apocalypse now. One doctor in New York City reported in fact that there were thousands of people coming in, they were spitting blood and they were blue with huckleberry. It's an astonishing image to think about. This was the most deadly pandemic in modern history and probably the most deadly pandemic after the Black Death of the Middle Ages and it struck with such suddenness. That's what made it so extraordinary. Because of the war, it went around the world so quickly. It certainly may have had an impact on the outcome of the conflict to some degree. There's discussion for instance that the German offensive in the spring and early summer of 1918 was halted because half a million German soldiers were sick with the flu. It certainly affected the morale of the German people. They were already under extreme duress because of the economic quarantine and there were half a million sick in Germany with the flu.
Theo Mayer: Interesting. When I was speaking with Katherine during our editorial meeting, one of the things that she had wondered was, there was so much progress in medicine at the time in other areas, how did medicine react to this in particular- or not react?
Kenneth Davis: Well, they were certainly trying. They were doing everything possible. They knew that more soldiers died from disease and related problems than from actual battlefield wounds, but they didn't really have the medical wherewithal at that point. A virus was still unknown and really unseen. The word virus existed. People knew what flu was and what the symptoms were but they didn't know it was caused by a virus. Viruses had never been seen because they are much smaller than bacteria, which had been seen. There was very little medically in the terms of what was in the doctor's kit at the time to deal with flu. Even today, we say, there's no cure for the common cold. There certainly wasn't back then. All they had was aspirin. When the flu hit in America, because we were in the midst of the war, a lot of people were convinced that it was a German plan, that somehow U-boats had poisoned the water or that German spies were putting germs in the movie theaters. There was even a suggestion that aspirin was tainted because Bayer was a German company.
Theo Mayer: Well, as a closing question, do you think that this deadly global event still echoes around today?
Kenneth Davis: Oh, absolutely and that's one of the reasons that I wrote this book. I was just talking about the fear and the propaganda that grew from the Spanish flu 100 years ago and I think that we can see some of those things today, when we dismiss science for instance or we dismiss what is sound medical advice. Woodrow Wilson and General Pershing certainly dismissed sound medical advice. They were told to quarantine some of the camps. They did not and that probably helped spread this very, very virulent, violent and lethal disease.
Theo Mayer: Well Ken, thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us today. A really fascinating subject.
Kenneth Davis: Thank you.