Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu 

The ongoing news of today’s coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic makes frequent reference to the Spanish flu of 1918, about which I basically knew nothing even though I had seen many references to it and even though I was a history major at Grinnell College (1957-61). [1]

Only now, sketchy internet research tells me that this earlier pandemic is called the “Spanish flu” although it was thought to have originated in the soldiers’ trenches of World War I, virtually the only news of the disease came from Spain, which was not involved in the war. This pandemic started in early 1918 and ended in December 1920, infecting 500 million people around the world (or about one-third of the world’s then total population) and causing 17 to 50 million deaths. In the U.S. the statistics were 25.8  million cases and  675,000 deaths. Unlike typical flu viruses, this one especially affected healthy young adults; almost half of the all deaths were those 20-40 years old. [2]

In that time period, both of my parents lived in Iowa, which had an estimated total Spanish flu cases of 93,000 with 6,000 deaths. In the Fall of 1918 the Iowa Board of Health “quarantined” the entire state and ordered the closing of all “public gathering places.” [3]

At the time, my father, Ward Glenn Krohnke, lived in the small town of Perry in the central part of the state. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, he was 16 years old in the junior year of high school.[4] Thus, In early 1918 he was 17 years old in his last year of high school, facing the prospect of joining the U.S. Army and being shipped to Europe to fight in World War I. That same year, after graduation, he did join the Army for training at Camp Dodge, Iowa (just north of Des Moines), where 10,000 men were treated for the flu with 700 of them dying.[5] The Armistice of November 11, 1918, however, led to his honorable discharge without going overseas.

I do not recall ever hearing that that he or his parents or brother contracted this version of the flu or that his father, Alvin J. Krohnke, who was a train dispatcher (or station agent) for the Milwaukee Railroad in Perry, had any financial difficulties caused by the flu.

In 1956 just before the start of my last year of high school, I was selected to go to Hawkeye Boys’ State, which was held at the old Camp Dodge, where we stayed in what must have been the old Army barracks.[6] I do not recall any mention being made at this gathering about its history during World War I or otherwise. Nor do I recall my Father on this occasion saying anything about his basic training there in 1918.

My mother, Marian Frances Brown at the time, in the larger southeastern Iowa town of Ottumwa in early 1918 would have been in the seventh grade. I never heard of her or any members of her family suffering from the Spanish flu, nor did I hear of any flu-related financial difficulties for her father (George Edwin Brown, who worked for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad).

I deeply regret that now I can only speculate about my parents’ concerns and fears during the Spanish flu pandemic and about my father’s concerns and fears about joining the Army and going to Europe to fight in World War I.

I, therefore, urge younger people to figure out what major national and international events occurred in their parents’ lifetimes and engage them in conversation of how they were affected by these larger events. Similarly those of us who are older should talk or write about such experiences for our descendants.


[1] This blogger has decided to periodically post his reactions to living through this pandemic. Here are the earlier such posts to Pandemic Journal (# 1): Kristof and Osterholm Analyses (Mar. 23, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 2): Westminster Presbyterian Church Service (03/22/20), (Mar. 24, 2020).

[2] Spanish flu, Wikipedia; Spanish flu, LiveScience (Mar. 12, 2020); Jester, Uyeki & Jernigan, Readiness for Responding to a Severe Pandemic 100 Years After 1918, Am. Journal of Epidemiology  (Aug. 9, 2018); The Deadly Virus: The Influenzas Epidemic of 1918, Nat’l Archives; Searcy, The Lessons of the Elections of 1918, N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2020).

[3] Iowa Dep’t Public Health, The 1918 Flu 100 Years Later (April 2018); Schmidt, Lessons for Iowa from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, The Gazette (Mar. 17, 2020)

4] World War I, Wipipedia.

5] Camp Dodge, Wikipedia; Camp Dodge-Photograph Album-World War I Army Containment 1917 , Wikipedia.

[6]  Growing Up in a Small Iowa Town, (Aug. 23, 2011);  American Legion (Dep’t of Iowa), Boys State of Iowa .


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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

14 thoughts on “Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu ”

  1. As an Iowan with Iowan parents, your blog today was especially interesting for me; especially since they both also survived the Spanish Flu era. However, they never mentioned this pandemic to me as I was growing up and even though I experienced the flu several times.

    Thanks for allowing me to receive your commentaries on a daily basis.

    Richard Tow (LGW 705)

  2. Naming of 1918-20 Pandemic

    A friend provided the following, more elegant, account of the naming of this pandemic:
    This flu was raging through the trenches of the warring countries in Europe towards the end of World War I in 1918, and for reasons of military secrecy no belligerent country–neither Britain nor France nor Germany–would admit they were dealing with an epidemic. Spain, facing the same epidemic but as a non-belligerent was not hindered by the dictates of military security, reported the disease. As a result, it was “rewarded” with the name “Spanish flu.”

  3. Yes, Duane, let’s stop calling pandemics by some country or other, like Trump has done. A good source for understanding the 1918-1919 influenza is John Barry’s THE GREAT INFLUENZA (Penguin, 2004). He points out that one of the earliest outbreaks was in military camps in Kansas, from where it was brought to Europe on troop ships. In fact, there were serious outbreaks on ships bring US soldiers to France. Spain was not an early venue for the disease. Because it was a neutral country, its newspaper were able to report on the outbreak there, unlike in the heavily censored United States. Barry continues to write important pieces on the developing pandemic. He never uses the term “Spanish Flu.”

  4. Other Thoughts on 1918 Flu

    Christopher J. Moore, a retired teacher in Belle Plains, MN, whose 31-year-old grandfather died in the 1918 flu, offers additional thoughts on that pandemic.

    “The 1918 flu infected perhaps 500 million people, one third of the world’s population at the time, and that somewhere between 50 million and 100 million died worldwide, more than in the two world wars combined. . . . [O]ne science journalist called ‘the biggest disaster of the twentieth century.’”

    “[A]t first some public officials dismissed the ‘Spanish’ flu as seasonal, one that typically dies out in warm weather, nothing to be taken seriously. . . [But] it spread widely in the summer heat, then intensified in autumn, ultimately striking in three different waves.”

    “[S]ome local governments downplayed the public risk. Philadelphia held a parade celebrating Liberty Bonds even as 600-plus soldiers and sailors stationed nearby lay seriously ill. Philadelphia’s public health director assured citizens that it was just the normal flu and would be contained before infecting the civilian population.

    The parade drew “thousands of soldiers, Boy Scouts, marching bands and local dignitaries . . . as 200,000 spectators lined the streets. Days later, hospitals in the area filled with patients suffering and dying. Soon as many as 500 corpses awaited burial, some for more than a week. Cold-storage plants became temporary morgues.”

    On the other hand, “St. Louis suffered flu-related deaths less than half the per capita rate of Philadelphia. How so? They banned large gatherings, staggered work shifts, limited streetcar ridership and encouraged wearing masks. Then, when some of the public pushed back against this’ “decision that infringes on people’s rights,’ the mayor and city health officials held their ground.”

    Moore, Let us learn from those who died in 1918, StarTribune (April 21, 2020)

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