Five Weird Facts About the 1918 Flu

shield-374x400This coming Sunday, June 3, from 1PM – 2:30PM. I’ll be at Central Library talking about WWI and the Flu of 1918. I hope you can join me!

The Spanish Flu of 1918 was no ordinary flu. It targeted young, healthy adults. It spread all over the world – to the villages of Alaska and of Africa, to China and Japan and South America, to the cities and towns of the United States. It infected about one-third of the people in the world, and it killed more Americans than the battlefields of WWI. Here are five weird facts about that weird and horrible epidemic:

1. Because no one knew how to treat the flu, people tried everything hey could think of. One man insisted that the way to avoid the flu was to drink 14 gins in a row. He survived both the gin and the flu. To treat the infected, people used onion or mustard poultices (onion did seem to have success), hot water immersion, cold water immersion, surgically draining the lungs, making the infected person breathe tobacco smoke, keeping them in hot rooms, and keeping them outside. Nothing worked consistently, although patients did better outside than in as long as they were kept warm and dry.

2. If you want to avoid contagion, wear a mask, tie a piece of raw potato to your leg, or wear asafoetida around your neck (asafoetida is a herb with a terrible smell when raw).

3. Many people who survived the crisis stage of the flu fell into a depressed state and committed suicide, sometimes by jumping from hospital windows without warning.

4. The flu struck people so suddenly that they could be symptom-free in the morning and dead by nightfall.

5. Flu survivors included Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Katherine Mansfield, and Walt Disney.

Join me on Monday for tragedy, gore, science, and history. And for heaven’s sake, wash your hands!

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