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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/6364/lessons-of-the-influenza-pandemic-of-1918/

Lessons of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918

March 11, 2007 by

Mystery solved. I first heard about the deadly flu pandemic of 1918 in an obscure blues song from that era. As I learned more about it, like that it was the worst pandemic in world history, I wondered why there was relative silence about this horrifying event, relative to, say, World War I and the Great Depression about which any schoolchild learns. Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac gives this rather strong clue:

Historians believe at least 500,000 people died in the United States alone. That’s more than the number of Americans killed in combat in all the wars of the 20th century combined…

No one is sure exactly how many people died, because it wasn’t even clear at the time what the disease was. World War I was currently under way, and there were rumors that German soldiers had snuck into Boston Harbor and released some new kind of germ weapon. One of the strangest aspects of the pandemic in this country was that it was barely reported in the media. President Woodrow Wilson had passed laws to censor all kinds of news stories about the war, and newspaper editors were terrified of printing anything that might cause a scandal.

So as the flu epidemic spread across the country. In large cities, people were dying of the flu so rapidly that undertakers ran out of coffins, streetcars had to be used as hearses, and mass graves were dug. The newspapers barely commented on it. In the fall of 1918, doctors tried to get newspapers to warn people in Philadelphia against attending a parade. The newspapers refused. In the week after the parade, almost 5,000 Philadelphians died of the flu.

The shipping of soldiers from base to base around the country seemed to have helped spread the infection. [This sentence is in the audio broadcast but not in the notes on the web page.]

So here is my hypothesis. The statist establishment has determined that various pro-state lessons can be drawn from WWI and the Depression so these events are discussed ad nauseam. The Influenza Pandemic, though, is largely forgotten as it rather obviously teaches different lessons:

  • The state distorts health information, either playing down something truly serious as in this case or playing up something that is actually no big deal as with the recent bird flu hysteria.
  • War, as it has been through the ages, is strongly associated with disease.
  • The mass media is not always a vigilant watchdog of the state. It is sometimes, in fact, a rather craven lapdog of the state.
  • The state’s latest crusade is more important to it than responding to actual threats to the American people.


Jim March 11, 2007 at 4:57 pm

You prefaced the article by implying that you had little prior knowledge of the 1918 pandemic, therefore I am led to believe that you are not a doctor or epidemiologist. Why, then, do you pompously claim that the bird flu hysteria was out of proportion? H5N1 is almost exactly like the 1918 flu, and we have no immunity to it. I suggest you learn more about it before you claim that we are overreacting to it. I understand that we should not be wetting ourselves at night for the time being, but it would behoove us to put a lot of effort into research so that we better understand it and can develop a cure.

Dennis March 11, 2007 at 5:09 pm

I am not an expert on this matter, but I seem to recall reading that worldwide (mostly I believe in Europe) roughly 20 million people died as a result of this flu out brake. This magnitude of deaths is generally attributed to the terrible conditions that existed in large parts of Europe that were directly the result of World War I.

All those supporters of this greatly destructive conflict, this “war to end all wars”, this “war to make the world safe for democracy” (sound familiar) need to include the deaths resulting from this flu out brake in assessing the damage caused by World War I.

And if I have misspoken regarding the 20 million figure, someone please correct me.

MC March 12, 2007 at 3:23 am

The most interesting aspect of this is the fact that those who survived such as my grandparents spoke so rarely of it and only then in obscure ways, though they were deathly afraid of germs, dirt and sick people afterword..I am sure they were not alone as they had lived in a major city in a crowded neighborhood back then and likely did see the large number of deaths..and carried the mental scars..
I have seen evidence of this 1918 pandemic myself that is not widely known..In a small ghost town called Keota Colorado at the local cemetary, the death rate appeared fairly low and normal for such a community for the 2 decades of its existance before 1918…then the number of graves rose dramaticlly..entire families died within days and weeks of each other..so many deaths happened that many of the later graves only had bags of cement left to mark them..(these hardened into the shape of the bag) plus in that same part of the cemetary there is a mass grave…with no markers…then some more concrete marker graves and then more actual tombstones..Those that died according to the grave markers were not the normal ones who die of the flu..(the old, young, weak or sick)it was the young adults..those in the prime of their lives who appear to have died first..of course it killed the young and old too, but the 1918 pandemic did not appear to discriminate in who it killed..
The town of Keota never recovered..the last people left within a decade.. My challenge to each of you who read this is simple..prepare yourself and inform yourself..the biggest danger to us as a civilization does not lie in warfare..or in politics or energy..it lies in overpopulation and the dangers of communicable diseases that go with this situation. The biggest threat to your life that the average person on this planet faces is within a microscope. Will a pandemic happen again..of course..when..who knows..how bad will it be..it depends on the virus..However, please please listen to me..I am a scientist, my wife is a physician..we have discussed this..here is our conclusion..Viruses can multiply, spread and mutate very very rapidly.Much faster than our sciences and medical services and governments can possibly respond..With any easily transmitted virus (especially airborn (Example caughing)) once it hits an airport anywhere on Earth it will radiate outward and within 24 to 48 hours will be in every major city and nation on Earth..mostly carried by unsuspecting people who show no symptoms and do not even know they are sick..How do you stop that..It would take at least a couple days for a medical examiner and/or the CDC to recognize and act if the original carrier were to drop dead right there in the middle of the airport..Next, think about the effect on a average city or town..once it starts, people will panic and hide from each other..work will stop as will basic services..Or more likely, by the time anyone notices that there is a problem many people will come down sick at once..hopsitals will be overwhelmed, and will become just what they were during the black plague in Europe..a place to come to die..Many health workers will quit or not report to work..they need to live too..others will become ill..in any event, there will not be enough staff or really much that they can do for mass numbers of sick people except make them comfortable and hope that the sick people still have enough of an immune system to overcome the virus naturally.. in Lets face it, there will be no vaccine..at least not initially..any vaccine that can be made early (such as the big plan for the bird flu) will take months or years to stockpile in large enough amounts, and even then it may not be specific enough to work depending on the specific mutation of the virus or it may only work some of the time..(a 50% effective vaccine is not really enough to make people very confident is it?) ..THERE IS NO MAGIC BULLET..THERE IS NO CURE..IF YOU RELY ON MEDICINE OR SCIENCE OR THE GOVERNMENT TO SAVE YOU FROM THE POWER OF NATURE YOU LIVE IN A FOOLS PARADISE..
Take a little time and figure out a basic plan for your family..write it down and then change it a little bit at a time as you come up with better ideas..it costs nothing to plan ahead..do a little homework at the public library that will help you to understand surviving a disaster..any kind will work as a good model..A little prayer and faith may help you too..However, too many will do nothing for themselves but will put their lives in the hands of others who do not know what to do or who really do not have the resources to help so many in need..The disaster in New Orleans should have opened peoples eyes, but my gut instinct is that the majority will follow like cattle into the pit of hell before they make the effort to think for themselves even once..

Rob March 12, 2007 at 5:16 am


This is the most likely reason the 1918 pandemic happened. Disease and food supply are inversely proportional. Swine, Legionaries, SARS, Bird – none of these had an impact because populations were healthy. When we start to scrounge for food, then we will have to worry about disease.

If you want to worry about a disease, rabies remains the only 100% guaranteed killer known to man.

Sudha Shenoy March 12, 2007 at 7:05 am

1. No, famine was _not_ responsible. It was a virulent strain of influenza against which people had little resistance.

2. The most recent estimates (Bull.Hist.Med. 2002) is that some 50-100 million died across the globe, more than half in Asia, between 1918 & 1920. Certainly the effect showed up in the subsequent Indian census.

3. This is a standard piece of 20th century history. I don’t know why the US should be the odd man out in this respect — ?

Yumi March 12, 2007 at 9:52 am

The Spanish flu was recreated recently by scientists. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6271833.stm

Famine is unlikely to be the reason behind this. It killed the Austrian artist Egon Schiele and almost killed Edvard Munch. Why was it called Spanish?

David Bratton March 12, 2007 at 11:08 am

According to Wikipedia…

The Allies of World War I came to call it the Spanish Flu, primarily because the pandemic received greater press attention in Spain than in the rest of the world, as Spain was not involved in the war and had not imposed wartime censorship.

hard return ¶ March 12, 2007 at 1:04 pm

Several books have come out in recent years on the 1918 flu pandemic. Reading “Flu” by Gina Kolata brought back anecdotes my grandparents told me–towns under quarantine, travel restrictions, and the oddity of the young and old being unaffected and how it cut down mostly active otherwise healthy adults. They told me that in the ’20s most everybody knew someone who had died from it and folks didn’t like to talk about it. But they never expressed any blame towards anyone, just accepted it as natural pestilence.

punter March 12, 2007 at 6:07 pm

Actually Stephen, the Spanish flu could well be the most anti-government story in history, but not for the reason you think. The Spanish Flu was not caused by a virus, it was caused by vaccines that governments forced upon their subjects. The origins of it were in fact in army camps in the United States. It could well be true that other factors caused illness, such as toxic gases used during the war and famine that may have inflicted many parts of the world following the war – and to think Keynesians believe war is good for an economy.

Doesn’t the fact that it only struck otherwise healthy adults strike people as strange for a flu ‘epidemic’.


There is of course no such thing as pathogenic viruses. If there were, no organism could exist (as viruses are not alive, they cannot be killed and therefore once infection took hold the organism would be powerless to fight it). Not to mention the minor nuisance of disease not affecting the medical community anymore than the non-medical community making sensible people wonder how other people could possibly describe these diseases as contagious. In fact there is absolutely nothing in the entire theory of viruses that is coherent, given that it breaks the laws of mathematics, evolutionary biology and simple logic.

So MC, you can relax, there is no way humanity will ever be overrun by a virus, government stupidity sure, human credulity for impending doom absolutely, but a virus no.

Vince Daliessio March 13, 2007 at 10:45 am

Jim, Dennis, and MC are like the blind men and the elephant – if you have only part of the picture , you will draw the wrong conclusions, to wit;

WW I caused or exacerbated the following conditions; famine, starvation, deprivation, chronic disease, vermin, unsanitary conditions, displacement and mass movement of sick, stressed people and livestock. This was a situation unique to massive, pre-industrial warfare. The pandemic flu virus was simply the ‘fittest’ infectious organism for the unique conditions generated by that war. To claim that the war did little or nothing to cause the pandemic is simply ludicrous, though the recent reconstitution of the virus by a senior army scientist working at the CDC certainly has biological warfare connotations.

Similarly, the virulence of the bird flu organisms is similar to or greater than the pandemic flu, and is spread and amplified by many of the same conditions outlined above, yet so far has not spread far beyond its endemic (poor, diseased, enfamished, transient) regions – pretty clear evidence that these conditions are limiting factors.
The best answer, then, to these pandemic viruses? Widespread wealth, prosperity, and peace. Vaccines may play a vital role in any future bird flu pandemic if it occurs, but prevention must always come first.

Maria March 13, 2007 at 11:22 am

We’ve skirted the issue of WHAT individuals or families can do now — regardless of what caused the 1918 pandemic. Dr Osterholm (epidemiologist) said “try to have 3-4 months worth of food and supplies on hand so that IF you need to be self-sufficient, you can stay home and not NEED to go out to forage for food.” Mormmons say the same thing. And I can’t make a logical argument against it. You don’t lose a thing by being so prepared. Its so simple.

averros March 13, 2007 at 9:29 pm

…water, food. And a thousand rounds of ammo to fend off marauders. What the police will do in case of a disaster is quite clear to anyone who observed what happened in New Orleans.

Dennis March 14, 2007 at 6:48 am


I am confused. Is not the conclusion of my posting generally in agreement with your comment? I think we are on the same page regarding this issue.

Vince Daliessio March 14, 2007 at 10:34 pm

Sorry Dennis – I didn’t mean to slur your excellent post – I was tapping out my comment on a pda screen in a dark meeting room!

Dennis March 15, 2007 at 6:34 am

No problem, Vince.

James November 30, 2007 at 8:23 pm

It is mentioned that doctors tried to warn people from attending a parade in Phila. and the newspapers would not do so.

It is not that they would not, they -could not-. The nation was at war and censorship was imposed – disease and pestilance are military information not to be revealed to an enemy.

Another instance is the Surprise Hurricane during WWII. The Weather Service knew of it quite some time in advance, but was unable to issue hurricane warnings to the coast as weather reports were censored to prevent the enemy from learning about flying conditions. As a result, damage in Houston was heavy, with 19 lives lost.

These are the result of censorship. I would rather have fifty warnings that turn out false than have the one true one be censored.

Harry Santos December 5, 2011 at 2:51 pm

I actually just watched the movie Contagion and became interested in how Pandemic will be adressed in AnCap society and so I ended up here. Interesting read, both the articles and the comments.

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