A hurricane across the green fields of life…
Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Via Library of Congress
A little over one hundred years ago, a novel virus emerged from an unknown animal reservoir and seeded itself silently in settlements around the world. Then, in the closing months of World War I, as if from nowhere, the infection exploded in multiple countries and continents at more or less the same time. From Boston to Cape Town, and London to Mumbai, the “Spanish flu,” so-called because the first widely reported outbreak occurred in Madrid in May 1918, swept like wildfire through cities and communities both large and small.
By the time the virus had burned itself out, in the spring of 1919, a third of the world’s population had been infected and at least 50 million people were dead. That is 40 million more than perished on the killing fields of Flanders and northern France (and elsewhere in Europe), and 10 million more than have died from AIDS in the forty years since the syndrome was first recognized in the 1980s.
Yet, except for those who watched loved ones succumb to the deadly pneumonic complications of Spanish flu, or who nursed patients on influenza wards and lost colleagues to the infection, the virus left relatively little mark on the collective consciousness of society. “Americans took little notice of the pandemic,” noted the environmental historian Alfred Crosby America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (1989), “then quickly forgot whatever they did notice.”
The Times of London was similarly puzzled by the pandemic’s failure to leave an emotional residue. “So vast was the catastrophe and so ubiquitous its prevalence that our minds, surfeited with the horrors of war, refused to realize it,” opined an editorial in “The Thunderer” in February 1921. “It came and went, a hurricane across the green fields of life, sweeping away our youth in hundreds of thousands and leaving behind it a toll of sickness and infirmity which will not be reckoned in this generation.”