One in three people worldwide got sick with the Spanish flu. Hospitals were full, and masks were hard to find.

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The Killer Flu of 1918

More than 100 years before Covid-19, a powerful flu killed 50 million people worldwide. Here’s what it was like to live through this terrifying period in American history. 

Coyne family/Raymond Coyne/Mill Valley Public Library

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    On October 5, 1918, Violet Harris found out her school was closing down. A dangerous disease was spreading around the country. But to Violet, 15, it didn’t feel like a threat. 

    “It was announced tonight that all churches, shows, and schools would be closed,” she wrote in her diary. “Good idea? I’ll say it is! So will every other school kid.”

    But Violet’s excitement didn’t last. Within a week, the disease had taken hold in her hometown of Seattle, Washington. The entire city was gripped with fear. People started wearing masks to protect themselves. Violet’s dad could find only three masks for their family of seven. 

    Worst of all, Violet’s best friend, Rena, got sick. Before long, she could hardly walk. Violet was scared for Rena, and she couldn’t even visit her friend. “It is too bad, but no one can take the chance of getting the flu,” she wrote. “It’s too dangerous.”

    On October 5, 1918, Violet Harris found out her school was closing down. A disease was spreading around the country. It was dangerous. But Violet, 15, wasn’t scared. 

    “It was announced tonight that all churches, shows, and schools would be closed,” she wrote in her diary. “Good idea? I’ll say it is! So will every other school kid.”

    But Violet’s feelings soon changed. Within a week, the disease took hold in her hometown of Seattle, Washington. People were scared. They started wearing masks to protect themselves. Violet’s father could find only three masks. There were seven people in their family.

    And that wasn’t all. Violet’s best friend, Rena, got sick. Before long, she could hardly walk. Violet was worried. And she couldn’t even visit. “It is too bad, but no one can take the chance of getting the flu,” she wrote. “It’s too dangerous.”

    On October 5, 1918, Violet Harris found out her school was closing down. A dangerous disease was spreading around the country—but to Violet, 15, it didn’t feel especially threatening. 

    “It was announced tonight that all churches, shows, and schools would be closed,” she wrote in her diary. “Good idea? I’ll say it is! So will every other school kid.”

    But Violet’s excitement didn’t last. Within a week, the disease had taken hold in her hometown of Seattle, Washington. The entire city was gripped with fear. People started wearing masks to protect themselves from the illness, and Violet’s father could find only three masks for their family of seven.

    Worst of all, Violet’s best friend, Rena, got sick. Before long, she could hardly walk. Violet was afraid for Rena, and she couldn’t even visit her friend. “It is too bad, but no one can take the chance of getting the flu,” she wrote. “It’s too dangerous.”

First Outbreak

    Does Violet’s experience sound familiar? If so, that’s because she lived through something a lot like the Covid-19 pandemic. In 1918, a disease called the Spanish flu spread around the globe. By the end of 1919, one in three people worldwide had gotten the disease. At least 50 million died.

    The first sign of the pandemic came in March 1918. A cook at an army camp in Kansas came down with a fever and a cough. Before long, the camp hospital was filled with patients. 

    In ordinary times, the disease might not have spread out of control. But World War I was being fought around the globe. Every week, thousands of American troops went overseas to join the battle. Many brought with them a dangerous flu. This silent killer would go on to cause more deaths than the war itself.

    Does Violet’s story sound familiar? She lived through something a lot like the Covid-19 pandemic. In 1918, a disease called the Spanish flu spread around the world. By the end of 1919, one in three people worldwide had gotten the disease. At least      50 million died.

    The first sign of the pandemic came in March 1918. A cook at an army camp in Kansas came down with a fever and a cough. Soon the camp hospital was filled with patients.

    At another time, the disease might not have spread out of control. But people were fighting in World War I. Every week, thousands of American troops went overseas to fight. Many brought with them a dangerous flu. This silent killer would cause more deaths than the war itself.

    If Violet’s experience sounds familiar, it’s because she lived through something very similar to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 1918, a disease called the Spanish flu spread around the globe. By the end of 1919, one in three people worldwide had gotten the disease. At least 50 million died.

    The first sign of the pandemic came in March 1918: A cook at an army camp in Kansas developed a fever and a cough, and before long the camp hospital was filled with patients.

    Under ordinary circumstances, the disease might not have spread out of control—but World War I was being fought around the globe, and thousands of American troops traveled overseas every week to join the battle. Many brought with them a dangerous flu, a silent killer that would go on to cause more deaths than the war itself.

Courtesy Violet Harris’s Family (All Images)

Violet’s diaries were filled with writing, newspaper clippings, and even doodles!

 

Meet Violet Harris  
Violet, 15, lived in Seattle, Washington, during the Spanish flu pandemic. Through her diary, we learned that she stayed busy with sewing and baking. She missed going to movie theaters. And she worried when her best friend became so sick she could barely walk.

Spreading Fast

    The war created the perfect conditions for a contagious virus to spread. Factories were packed with workers making ships and guns. Soldiers were crowded together in army camps and trenches.

    For people who got sick, medical care could be hard to find. Many doctors and nurses were busy at the battlefields. In cities, wounded soldiers filled the hospital beds. 

    To make matters worse, the public did not get good information about the virus. During the war, many nations censored the news. They didn’t want the enemy to know that their troops were weakened by disease.

    The war made it easy for a contagious virus to spread. Factories were packed with workers making ships and guns. Soldiers were crowded into army camps and trenches.

    For those who got sick, medical care could be hard to find. Many doctors and nurses were busy at the battlefields. In cities, wounded soldiers filled the hospital beds.

    And the public wasn’t told enough about the virus. During the war, many nations censored the news. They didn’t want the enemy to know that their troops were weakened by disease.

    The war created the perfect conditions for a contagious virus to spread: Factories were packed with workers making ships and guns, and soldiers were crowded together in army camps and trenches.

    For people who got sick, medical care wasn’t always immediately available. Many doctors and nurses were busy at the battlefields. In cities, wounded soldiers filled the hospital beds.

    To make matters worse, the public wasn’t given complete and accurate information about the virus. During the war, many nations censored the news to avoid revealing to the enemy that their troops were weakened by disease.

Tyler Mabie/Shutterstock.com (Schoolhouse); Marcel Derweduwen/Alamy Stock Photo (Toilet); Library of Congress (Old Farm); Fourleaflover/Shutterstock.com (Ticket)

A Second Wave

    In August 1918, a second wave of the pandemic swept around the globe. And this time, it was even more deadly.

    Flus are usually worst for the old and the very young. But this disease mostly attacked healthy people between the ages of 20 and 40. And it killed fast. Patients turned blue from lack of oxygen. They bled from the nose and mouth. 

    At first, public officials wouldn’t admit how bad the pandemic had gotten. In September, Philadelphia allowed 200,000 people to gather for a parade. About 4,500 people died in the next week. Bodies were kept in garages until they could be buried. Still, one city official promised, “From now on, the disease will decrease.”

    In August 1918, there was a second wave of the pandemic. This one was even more deadly.

    Most flus are worse for the old and the very young. But this one mostly attacked healthy people between the ages of 20 and 40. And it killed fast. Patients turned blue from lack of oxygen. They bled from the nose and mouth.

    At first, public officials wouldn’t admit how bad the pandemic had gotten. In September, Philadelphia let 200,000 people gather for a parade. About 4,500 people died in the next week. Bodies were kept in garages until they could be buried. Still, one city official promised, “From now on, the disease will decrease.”

    In August 1918, a second wave of the pandemic swept around the globe—and this time, it was even deadlier.

    Flus are typically most dangerous to the elderly and the very young, but this disease attacked mainly healthy people between the ages of 20 and 40. And it killed quickly, causing patients to turn blue from lack of oxygen and to bleed from the nose and mouth.

    At first, public officials wouldn’t admit how bad the pandemic had gotten. In September, Philadelphia allowed 200,000 people to gather for a parade. About 4,500 people died in the next week. Bodies were kept in garages until they could be buried. Still, one city official promised, “From now on, the disease will decrease.”

Locking Down

Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images 

Experts also shared many safety rules for people to follow (see sign). Does it sound familiar to you? 

    By October, Americans realized how deadly the pandemic was. Around the country, nearly 7,000 people were dying every day. Restaurants and schools were finally shut down. 

    Officials told people to wear masks in public. Workers in many places refused to show up for work. 

    Then, almost as fast as it had begun, the flu disappeared. It had infected one in three people around the world. Each of those people became immune to the disease, meaning they couldn’t get sick again. That stopped the flu from spreading further. 

    Life in many places returned to normal. In Seattle, Violet’s friend, Rena, got better. The lockdown ended after six weeks, and Violet couldn’t wait to go to the movies. 

    But she wasn’t as excited to be back in class. “School opens this week—Thursday!” she wrote in her diary. “Did you ever? As if they couldn’t have waited till Monday!”

    By October, people saw how deadly the flu was. In the U.S., there were nearly 7,000 deaths a day. Restaurants and schools were finally shut down. Officials told people to wear masks in public. Many people stayed home from work.

    Then, almost as fast as it had come, the flu was gone. It had infected one in three people worldwide. Those people became immune to the flu, meaning they couldn’t get sick again. And so the flu stopped spreading.

    Life in many places went back to normal. In Seattle, Violet’s friend Rena got well. The lockdown ended after six weeks. Violet couldn’t wait to go to the movies.

    She was less glad to go back to class. “School opens this week—Thursday!” she wrote. “Did you ever? As if they couldn’t have waited till Monday!”

    By October, Americans realized how deadly the pandemic was. Around the country, nearly 7,000 people were dying every day. Restaurants and schools were finally shut down. Officials told people to wear masks in public. Workers in many places refused to show up for work.

    Then, almost as suddenly as it had begun, the flu disappeared. It had infected one in three people around the world. Each of those people became immune to the disease, meaning they couldn’t be infected again. That stopped the flu from spreading further.

    Life in many places returned to normal. In Seattle, Violet’s friend Rena recovered. The lockdown ended after six weeks, and Violet couldn’t wait to go to the movies.

    But she wasn’t as excited to be back in class. “School opens this week—Thursday!” she wrote in her diary. “Did you ever? As if they couldn’t have waited till Monday!”

Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images 

In the photo above, women are sewing masks to help keep people safe.

Back to Normal?

    It took time to bounce back from the 1918 pandemic. But in some ways, the world came out stronger. Governments spent money to make sure people had good health care. Scientists studied contagious diseases. In 1918, there were no medicines to protect against the flu. By 1942, scientists had made the first flu vaccine.

    Flash forward to today. The world is suffering through another pandemic. This time, it took less than a year to make a vaccine for Covid-19. We owe that success in part to what we learned from the people who lived through the Spanish flu. With a little luck, they may help us bounce back faster than the world did 100 years ago. 

    It took time to bounce back from the 1918 pandemic. But in some ways, the world came out stronger. Governments worked to make health care better. And scientists studied contagious diseases. In 1918, there were no medicines to protect against the flu. By 1942, scientists had made the first flu vaccine.

    Flash forward to today. Once again, there’s a pandemic. This time, it took less than a year to make a vaccine for Covid-19. We learned a lot from the people who lived through the Spanish flu. With luck, we might bounce back faster than the world did 100 years ago. 

    Although it took time to bounce back from the 1918 pandemic, the world came out stronger in some ways. Governments spent money to make sure people had good health care, and scientists studied contagious diseases. In 1918, there were no medicines to protect against the flu. By 1942, scientists had developed the first flu vaccine.

    Flash forward to today. The world is suffering through another pandemic. This time, it took less than a year to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. We owe that success in part to what we learned from the people who lived through the Spanish flu. With a little luck, that may help us bounce back faster than the world did a century ago.

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ACTIVITY: 
Finding Text Evidence

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Lasting Effects
After the Spanish flu pandemic, scientists started studying contagious diseases. This led to the creation of the flu shot. It prevents millions of illnesses every year.

You’ve just read “The Killer Flu of 1918.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “The Killer Flu of 1918.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

You’ve just read “The Killer Flu of 1918.” Now do this activity to help you better understand the article.

Tip: Text evidence means details in a story that support an answer or show that it is true.

What to do: Use text evidence—or details from the article—to answer the questions below. We did the first one for you.

Why couldn’t Violet visit her friend Rena?

HINT: Look for the answer in the first section.

Answer: Violet couldn’t visit Rena because Rena had the Spanish flu, which was very dangerous.

Why couldn’t Violet visit her friend Rena?

HINT: Look for the answer in the first section.

Answer: Violet couldn’t visit Rena because Rena had the Spanish flu, which was very dangerous.

Why couldn’t Violet visit her friend Rena?

HINT: Look for the answer in the first section.

Answer: Violet couldn’t visit Rena because Rena had the Spanish flu, which was very dangerous.

Why did the Spanish flu  spread around the world so quickly?

HINT: Look for the answer in the sections “First Outbreak” and “Spreading Fast.”

Why did the Spanish flu  spread around the world so quickly?

HINT: Look for the answer in the sections “First Outbreak” and “Spreading Fast.”

Why did the Spanish flu  spread around the world so quickly?

HINT: Look for the answer in the sections “First Outbreak” and “Spreading Fast.”

What happened to 4,500 people after a parade in Philadelphia?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Second Wave.”

What happened to 4,500 people after a parade in Philadelphia?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Second Wave.”

What happened to 4,500 people after a parade in Philadelphia?

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “A Second Wave.”

What did officials tell people to do to avoid spreading the Spanish flu? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Locking Down.”

What did officials tell people to do to avoid spreading the Spanish flu? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Locking Down.”

What did officials tell people to do to avoid spreading the Spanish flu? 

HINT: Look for the answer in the section “Locking Down.”