100th Anniversary of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 and the Lessons We've Learned From It

Oct 9, 2018

One hundred years ago, more than 93,000 Iowans came down with what was at first a mysterious malady.  Eventually 6,116 died from what became known as the Spanish Influenza, although historian and Iowa native Michael Luick-Thrams says the pandemic actually originated in Kansas.  It went on to kill about fifty million people worldwide that year.

Luick-Thrams is director of the TRACES Center for History and Culture and is touring Iowa this month to teach Iowans about the significance of one of the worst pandemics in world history.  He told Charity, "Many of us have forgotten or don't know much about this, and don't even know that it happened because it has faded into our collective memory."  He says many world leaders came down with the flu, killing he leaders of Brazil and South Africa, for example, and devastating many of the world's writers, actors and athletes.  Even Hollywood was hit hard, and actors such as Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish were sick with the disease.  Also, he noted that many unborn children also perished, as many pregnant women lost their lives.

But the major impact was on young people worldwide, as Luick-Thrams told us, the virus mutated (they thought at the time that it was a bacterial infection) and he says the flu was "especially wicked" to those in the 20 to 35 age group.  He explained to our listeners: "Soldiers were among those who suffered the most, as were children and students." 

People wonder how the disease spread so quickly, the Iowa State University graduate told us, but even though the world is highly connected today, he says it was fairly well connected even in 1918.  "The world was not as disconnected as we might think then--you had locomotives and ships moving tens of millions of young men, nurses, doctors and support people around the world during World War One.  The British Empire sucked up millions of men out of New Zealand, Australia, Canada and elsewhere to Europe to fight and also many non-white colonials from such places as Africa and India were moved around as well," Luick-Thrams said.

The Iowa State Board of Health, in its final tally, reported 6,116 Iowans died of the flu, inculding 132 in Cedar Rapids and 30 in Iowa City, in the last three months of 1918.  Another 3,085 had died of pneumonia.  More than 93,500 people statewide had been counted as sick from the flu.