April 06, 2018

The influenza ward of a U.S. Army camp hospital in France. Credit: U.S. Army Medical Corps

The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed between 50 and 100 million people. It infected a third of the world’s population. But it’s likely that, if you’re thinking of the most important events of the 20th century, the Spanish Flu probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Why is that? To find out, and to explore exactly how it reshaped society, we talked with Laura Spinney, author of the book "Pale Rader: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World."

Three Takeaways

  • Spinney believes that one of the reasons the Spanish Flu has been somewhat forgotten is that it does not easily lend itself to narrative. In comparison, World War I had colorful characters, along with a well-defined beginning, middle, and an end.
  • The Spanish Flu impacted the course of human history, sometimes in surprising ways. Spinney points out that if pregnant women were infected and survived, the affected children were diminished cognitively and physically. “[They were] less likely to graduate, less likely to earn a good wage, and more likely to go to prison… So, the effects of what happened to them in the womb lasted for the whole of the 20th century. That generation is only just passing now.”
  • It’s not a question of “if” the next major flu pandemic will strike, it’s a question of “when”. As to whether it will be on the same scale as the Spanish Flu, that’s up in the air. We’re more connected than we were in 1918, there are more people on the planet, and we have an older population, but we also have a more robust medical arsenal to respond to the disease. However, according to the World Bank, “an outbreak today like the 1918 Spanish flu would kill more than 33 million people in 250 days.”

More reading 

Laura Spinney, Spanish Flu of 1918, World War I

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