In the Spring of 1918, a powerful new enemy emerged threatening both sides of the war. The enemy was a strain of influenza known as the “Spanish Flu”. World War I claimed an estimated 16 million lives. The influenza epidemic that swept the world in 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. This deadly virus attacked One fifth of the world’s population. Within months, it had killed more people than any other illness in recorded history.
Scientists today believe the influenza epidemic started in army camps in the United States. The plague emerged in two phases. In late spring of 1918, the first phase, known as the "three-day fever," appeared without warning. Few deaths were reported. Victims recovered after a few days. When the disease surfaced again that fall, it was far more severe. Scientists, doctors, and health officials could not identify this disease which was striking so fast and so viciously, eluding treatment and defying control. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others succumbed after a few days; their lungs filled with fluid and they suffocated to death.
The plague did not discriminate. It targeted the young and healthy as well as the elderly. Young adults, who are usually unaffected by these types of infectious diseases, were among the hardest hit groups along with the elderly and young children. The flu afflicted over 25 percent of the U.S. population. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years. This was yet another new battle during World War I.
It is an oddity of history that the influenza epidemic of 1918 has been overlooked in the teaching of history. Documentation of the disease is ample, as shown in the records selected from the holdings of the National Archives regional archives. Exhibiting these documents helps the epidemic take its rightful place as a major disaster in world history.