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History of Pandemics: A Thumbnail Sketch

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston

March 30, 2020

While the past century presents a number of examples, the influenza outbreak of 1918 may most closely resemble what our world is now experiencing with the current global pandemic. History Professor Fritz Fischer shares a portion of his classroom lesson here.

Fischer, who teaches about pandemics in his UNC classes, said the so-called Spanish Flu, as it is widely referred to, had nothing to do with the disease’s point of origin. Rather, as World War I waged on, the neutral country of Spain had no reason to subscribe to the notion that censorship at the time could “hurt the war effort” and provided reports of the public health crisis.

Top Image: Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston. Photo courtesy of Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Fritz Fischer“Censorship obviously harmed the ability to deal with the problem,” Fischer said. “Tensions and arguments about media reporting the flu and overdramatizing or overexaggerating were exactly the kinds of things on people’s minds in 1918.”

A case can be made, Fischer said, that the first reports of the illness actually emerged in western Kansas in early 1918. Influenza spread among soldiers at Fort Riley near Manhattan, Kansas, and WWI exacerbated the transmission as troops deployed overseas. A vicious cycle continued as U.S. soldiers later returned home after the war ended, as influenza ravaged Europe, prompting another surge.

In the states, modern medicine was very much in its infancy, and lagging behind its European counterparts. Medical professionals didn’t need specialized schooling, or scientific reasoning, to treat patients. Doctors often relied on anecdotal information based on their observations of treatment, figuring if the intervention worked for a half dozen people it would for the masses.

“Influenza accelerated professionalization of medicine; up to the turn of the century, it was an anecdotal profession based on intuition,” Fischer said. “Science was only starting to be used by U.S. doctors and policymakers at the time. The debate about how much intuition or common sense versus science in responding to an outbreak really started in 1918.”

In response, quarantines were common, even on the campus of what is now UNC under orders from institution President John Crabbe. Social gatherings were banned. Living spaces were converted to a hospital. In “Shaping Educational Change,” an account of UNC’s first 100 years, UNC emeritus professor Robert Larson writes: “This all-encompassing regimen continued for months, until the quarantine was lifted.”

old UNC yearbook page of Spanish flu shots
Above: The 1919 UNC Yearbook includes images of the Spanish flu pandemic at UNC as a 'look back.' 

“Quarantining is happening today, too, so there are similarities in that way,” Fischer said. “Two areas that should be an advantage over the flu epidemic of 1918: we know the science and how coronaviruses work. Combine that with the technology that connects us and government action that people accept, and we can slow down the spread or flatten the curve.”

—Written by Nate Haas

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