Ground Zero in one of the world’s deadliest influenza pandemics started quietly, inconspicuously.
It was winter, 100 years ago. And it was here, in Kansas.
The virus began on the windswept Kansas prairie, where dirt-poor farm families struggled to do daily chores — slopping pigs, feeding cattle, horses, and chickens, living in primitive, cramped, uninsulated quarters.
It’s not known whether it started in the pigs or chickens or birds flying overhead. But it spread to young farmers who, drafted for World War I, reported for duty at Fort Riley.
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The virus mutated along the way as men coughed and sneezed, spreading germs in Army barracks, then on trains across the nation and on ships to Europe. Within six to nine months, the 1918 influenza pandemic had killed at least 20 million people worldwide. Some reports said 40 million.
No one knows for sure what farm, what family may have first fallen ill. The community was most likely Santa Fe, now a ghost town in Haskell County, says Darlene Groth, curator at Haskell County Historical Society in Sublette.
What is known is that a Kansas country doctor — Dr. Loring Miner, who practiced in Haskell County — became concerned when he noticed this three-day flu wasn’t typical. It was an “influenza of the severe type,” he wrote, and hit young, strong and otherwise healthy people the hardest. He was the first to report to Public Health Reports —a publication of the U.S. Public Health Service — that this flu was a killer.
Dr. Miner could not have known that a perfect storm of circumstances was developing to rapidly spread the virus around the world. At any point, it could have lost its potency. But it didn’t — it kept building in strength like a wildfire each time large groups of people were forced into crowded situations in geographic centers around the world.
In the military
Camp Funston, at Fort Riley, was the largest training facility in the Army, full of makeshift non-insulated barracks, housing 250 soldiers each. It teemed with soldiers from all over the Midwest, training for duty in France.
“They trained over 50,000 troops at a time who all lived in close quarters. The Army was cognizant that it needed to help our French and British Allies out, so there was no questioning, they were sending troops out — soldiers were being sent that had flu-like symptoms,” said Robert Smith, supervisory curator for Fort Riley Museums.
Troops traveled by train from the Midwest to ports, then boarded ships bound for the war.
“Recruits were being shifted from camp to camp by the thousands and they were taking with them fatigue and it made for easy exposure. The infections and disease followed,” Smith said.
Along the way, the virus mutated, many times. It hit people in waves, becoming more virulent each time.
The first wave in the winter of 1918 was serious. The second wave — during the summer, when many of the soldiers were on the Western Front — was deadly, Smith said. The third wave came during the fall, when troops were returning.
“We gave it to our Allies and they gave it to our enemies,” Smith said.
The Spanish flu
It was one of the greatest pandemics the world has seen, Smith said, even greater than the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages. It was nicknamed the Spanish Flu, the Spanish Lady and the Blue Death. Old-timers called it the grippe. German soldiers called it Flanders fever.
One in every four Americans caught it, and 12,000 Kansans died of it or its complications. There are few Kansas cemeteries that don’t hold victims of the 1918 flu.
Like other places, Kansas tried to stop it.
In early October of 1918, Dr. Samuel Crumbine, secretary of the state board of health, issued a statewide shutdown order to stop the spread of the disease. Visitors were barred from all state institutions, movie theaters were closed, and local authorities were told to discontinue public meetings. People were advised to keep their feet dry and try not to get chilled. Churches, schools, theaters were closed.
In Goessel, members of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church held funeral services outside the building for the flu victims in an attempt to avoid spreading the disease.
The Wichita Eagle published homework assignments from teachers and sermons of local ministers.
The Eagle reported that nearly 200 people died during October — more deaths in the city than had ever before been recorded in a single month.
Then and now
Could it happen again?
The short answer is yes.
What helps now — say medical historians — is that we have flu shots. They didn’t exist in 1918.
“The military takes the health of its soldiers very seriously and the civilians who work with them,” Smith said. “They make flu shots available to us. But the problem with the flu is that it mutates very rapidly and so while it can be one virus now, in a few months, it can mutate to a totally different type of flu.”
The 1918 flu was a strain known as H1N1. This year’s dominant strain is H3N2.
“Compared to the 1918 flu, this year is not that bad,” Amy Seery, Via Christi pediatrician and assistant professor at the KU School of Medicine Wichita. “Compared to 2009, this feels a little like that.”
The swine flu pandemic in 2009 was a hybrid of the H1N1.
Other significant flu years include the Asian Flu of 1957, H2N2, and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968, H3N2.
“The differences between 1918 and now is that there are immunizations now. There were none in 1918,” said Dr. Frederick Holmes, professor emeritus at the KU Medical Center and professor emeritus in the history of medicine. “Viruses mutate all the time. Most of the time the changes don’t mean anything. You can build an immunity to influenza if you have had it before — to some extent.”
In normal flu years, Seery said, the flu is tough on the elderly and very young. In more aggressive flu years, the flu wreaks more havoc in young people, causing what is known as a cytokine storm — an overproduction of immune cells.
“You have a hyper immune response where the body almost becomes overly aggressive and causes more harm than good. Your body can sicken very rapidly and become unresponsive to normal routine treatments,” Dr. Seery said. “There can be a severe inflammation of the lungs and bleeding into the lung tissues. It becomes very difficult for us to reverse.”
That is what happened in 1918.
And it all started on the Kansas prairie.
“It’s unthinkable that it would be in Kansas,” Holmes said. “But if you think of Dodge City as fairly remote — and this occurred west of Dodge City, west of there … well, good gravy, that’s at the end of the world.”