The 1918 Flu Pandemic – Emergence – Extra History – #1


September 1918: Camp Devens, Massachusetts. The man on the autopsy table
has turned blue. Dr. William H. Welch
nods to proceed. His colleagues
reach for the bone saw and begin
to open the ribcage. The man’s lungs
are heavy. Welch and his colleagues
lean in as they’re opened. The lungs are
so full of fluid that it’s traveled up
the trachea. The man
had drowned in his own body, just like
the others. Welch needs air. He opens the door and stumbles
around men lying on the floor. There are no longer
enough beds in the hospital. Six thousand men, crammed
at a facility meant for 1,200, and they’re turning blue. This is
a horror story; one of the most
frightening in history. In 1918
a new disease emerged. We still don’t know exactly how
or where it first began infecting humans, but within months it would spread
across the planet, from the trenches of the Western Front
to the most remote villages on earth. It infected 1/3 of the world’s population
and killed between 50 and 100 million people. To put that in perspective, the low estimate would make it
twice as deadly as World War I, while the high estimate would mean
it killed more than both World Wars combined. Between 3-6% of the global
population died within 18 months. It was the first
modern plague, turning
our interconnected world against us by spreading
through shipping lanes, rail lines and the arteries of industrialized war, yet it was also the first pandemic
of the scientific age, where doctors could, to some extent, understand
what was happening and stand against the
infection, though they lacked
the tools to stop it. So in 1918, while researchers
couldn’t really see viruses, they knew
such things must exist. They had no idea that unlike the bacteria
they could see in their microscopes, the flu was not alive
in any way humans understood it: Just a bunch of unstable genetic material
that possessed a cell, forcing it to pump out billions
of copies of itself, and
with each cell infected, a minority of those new viruses
mutated into something more infectious; more deadly. A microorganism that, through the randomness
of natural selection, became progressively better at catching
and killing as it passed through each host. In its wake it altered
a World War, drove languages extinct, and shattered the sense of invulnerability
that modern medicine had begun to cultivate, and when
the nightmare ended, the world did what any person does
when they wake from a dream: It forgot! But forgetting
is something we can’t afford because the virus that ravaged
the world in 1918 is still out there; still mutating, and it will return. Yet, despite
its impacts, we still don’t know where
the pandemic originated, but there are theories! Canada, 1917. A train races across the plains. Military guards are instructed to keep civilians
away from the locomotive. If they see what’s inside, there may be a riot. These cars, designed for cattle, contain the men of the Chinese Labor Corps. Pawns in a political gambit, until recently, the young, fragile Republic of China
had remained neutral in the first World War. With so many foreign countries
holding territory within its borders, joining the conflict risks making
their homeland a battleground. But neutrality was not tenable. Japan,
one of the allies, had used the war
as pretext to move troops into Chinese territory and demand control
of the Chinese government. To thread the political needle,
China had declared war on Germany. Hopefully the other allies
will now protect China from Japanese aggression and give it
a seat at the post-war negotiating table. It may even get
its occupied territory back. But to maintain
a shred of neutrality, these Chinese
recruits are barred from combat. They would dig trenches, lug ammunition,
and clear minefields. So here they are, shipped to Canada, crammed
on train cars, and traveling overland
to a troop ship in Halifax. But there’s something else among them. A respiratory disease that had ravaged
northern China the previous year. A winter sickness severe enough that some victims
coughed blood and turned blue. First, one recruit begins to cough, then another. One by one they fall ill
with splitting headaches and chills. Crammed into the cattle cars,
there’s nowhere to run; nowhere
to isolate the sick. They beg the guards to let them
get off and seek medical attention, but due to the rampant
anti-Chinese sentiment in Canada, the guards have their orders
to keep the passengers a secret. By the time they reach Halifax, 3,000 have to
be placed in quarantine. Doctors give the sick nothing
but castor oil for sore throats and load the rest of the recruits
onto the troop ships for France. Those men aren’t sick… yet. But flu victims are contagious
days before presenting symptoms, meaning the British Empire
has just delivered Pandemic flu to the trenches. If that is, it was flu, because another emergence
is about to occur in the unlikeliest of places. March 4th, 1918. Camp Funston, Kansas. Like every military base in America, Camp Funston is overcrowded. The second largest training center
in the country, Funston’s 56,000 men live
in barracks and tents, each waiting to be rotated
to duty in the US or France. Diseases always break out
when recruits muster for war, so it’s no surprise when a private, a Cook no less, reports for sick call with influenza. By noon, 107 other soldiers
have joined him. Within three weeks
it’ll be over 1,100. Alarming, sure,
but this is wartime. Camp outbreaks happen. Even as 20% of the patients
develop pneumonia and 38 died Doctors see nothing abnormal, but they’re missing
a key piece of the puzzle. A month before
and 300 miles away, the lone doctor in Haskell County, Kansas
had watched flu kill dozens of his strongest, healthiest patients. It’s rapid pace and high fatality rate
alarmed him so much, that he contacted
the Public Health Service and published an alert
in the National Health Journal, but no one listened! The paper’s obituary page
was unusually busy that February, but alongside the reports of death
and illness were heartwarming articles. Soldiers from Haskell County
were departing for boot camp or visiting home one last time
before deployment. All headed
to Camp Funston, and from there,
to France. Two weeks after
the first case at Funston, 10% of recruits were reporting sick
at two camps in Georgia. By the end
of the month, 24 of the 36 largest military bases
in America had cases, along with 30 major cities. No one noticed… yet. Army Medical Department, Washington, DC. Doctor William H. Welch
was tracking an epidemic. One of the country’s most famous doctors, Welch had
helped drag American medicine into the modern age. He helped found
the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, spread the use
of microscopes, and organized
the Rockefeller Institute, the country’s first
dedicated medical laboratory. His work had helped transform America
from a nation of country doctors to a Titan of scientific medicine, able to compete
with the Pasteur Institute in France and the Koch Institute
in Berlin. Because of him, America had joined the
age of the microscope and the vaccine, a bright world where doctors could
both see diseases and kill them. The last few decades had brought vaccines for
smallpox, rabies, anthrax, diphtheria, and meningitis. Researchers at the Rockefeller Institute were taking
the first steps towards limb reattachment and organ transplantation. Some optimists even predicted
a future without communicable disease! And America needed that scientific power
now more than ever! Even before the war, Welch delivered a message
to the Army Surgeon General: When mobilization happens, you’ll have
an epidemic! You’ll need to recruit the best doctors
and microbiologists. You’ll need researchers, train cars outfitted
as mobile research laboratories, a stockpile of vaccines
and antitoxins, anything to be ready. When the war started, the Surgeon General didn’t
bother recruiting Welch and his researchers. He just unfolded
the Rockefeller Institute into the army. And here it was, the epidemic
that Welch had feared. He could see it moving
on the map from camp to camp, and it had killed
nearly 6,000 already. He had sent researchers
to chart the spread and battle the secondary cases of pneumonia
that were the real killer in most epidemics. They’d all warned the army that this would happen
if they overcrowded the camps, but no one listened! Welch had dispatched an experimental vaccine
that fought one form of bacterial pneumonia, as well as a serum that cut
the death rates by half. Results of the test looked good,
if not 100% effective. It was proving
a successful response. But there was a problem. Because the epidemic that Welch
was fighting to contain wasn’t flu, it was measles. He’d seen reports of influenza
spreading too, but influenza was seasonal, something that was expected
and would go away. Doctors weren’t even obligated to report
cases to the Public Health Service, so the prospect of a measles outbreak seemed much more serious, especially with recruits grouped
together in training camps and 36,000 of the nation’s doctors
deployed in France. So as Welch
fought Measles, infected American troops
boarded troop ships. They packed into the hold until each converted
ocean liner held twice the normal load of passengers. They pulled away
from the dock waving farewell to families
and loved ones on shore and turned towards Europe. It was
in the bloodstream now. Not just of the men, but of the world…

100 thoughts on “The 1918 Flu Pandemic – Emergence – Extra History – #1

  1. The flu was the first modern plague—turning our interconnected world against us by spreading through shipping lanes, rail lines and the arteries of industrialized war. Yet it was also the first pandemic of the scientific age, where doctors could to some extent understand what was happening and stand against the infection, though they lacked the tools to stop it.
    Also, say hello to the voice of "professor" Matt!

  2. Love your history videos. I’ve learnt more from you folks than I did from school. I especially love your videos about plagues and illnesses! Could you do one on the Black Plague?

  3. 29 YEARS AGO I got FLUE.

    Propper FLU – not a severe cold or even what we think of as flue, I mean FLUE. I was 21 and super healthy, I was a bodybuilder.
    The only thing I will say about it is I 100% KNOW why millions of people died of it in 1918…………….

  4. Ehm one thing, in your comparison you are using the lowest estimates for world war 1 and 2. Actual closer to reality estimates of world war 1 put it at some 35 million people dying, and world war 2 at some 80 million

  5. 7:14
    Doctors in the early 20th: “ There won’t be any diseases in 100 years!!”
    Anti Vaxxers: “Honey you got a big storm coming!!”

  6. Not gonna lie, but “he had drown in his own body” is the scariest thing I’ve heard after “carpeted kitchen.”

  7. Me-Wait, this was 100 years ago and there are anti-Vaxxers NOW??
    Also me-runs to doctor
    GIVE ME EVERY SINGLE VACCINE YOU HAVE

  8. As with middle age plague and many other diseases…. nutrition… hygiene and sanitation highly reduces such diseases….good example is measles…

  9. and it will return
    Me: has nightmares for the rest of the year about an out break happening and everyone I love dying

  10. 6:48 that dabbing joke aged well note to self if there’s a modern trend never put in your video

  11. If you like medical detection stories, I suggest looking up the works of Berton Roueché published in the 1950's in The New Yorker magazine and as books.

  12. Damn it I forgot! We Canada were HIGHLY against Chinese immigration, we needed people to immigrate to Canada so the Americans didn’t get any ideas about invading, we pretty much discriminated against them as much as we did with the native Americans… you know trying to turn them into Europeans by putting kids in residential schools, whipping them if they spoke there native language, so yeah, Canada is great buuutttttt not the angel everyone thinks.

  13. I may have flu, should I get children's emergency or go to a major government clinic
    For context I live in Singapore

  14. Just a heads up for the future. The staff at the beginning was the Caduceus. You should have had the staff of Asclepius, the god of medicine. The difference is that the Caduceus has two snakes and the staff of Asclepius has one.

  15. My grandfather died from this flu. He was only 30 years old. I never got to meet him as I wasn't born till 36 years later. His death plunged my dad, aunt and grandmother into poverty as they lost the bread winner of the family. My dad was 2 years old at the time and his sister was a baby. My other grandfather on my mothers side also caught this flu but somehow he lived. He said he was never so sick in his life and thought he would die.

  16. After watching the full fluseries I think that the flu pandemic series was my favorite. New narrator 11 out of 10! Your voice really emphasizes how grave this situation was.

  17. Why does everyone talk about the Black Death and nobody mentions the Spanish Flu when it was so much worse in any aspect? Why do people shudder just hearing the world "plague", but are like "Yeah, influenza… been there, done that, not that bad"? Is it because a new, equally deadly influenza strain can appear anytime and people are somewhat in denial or are not supposed to panic? Every school should teach about the Spanish Flu, we need people to understand that influenza is pretty much the most dangerous disease out there.

  18. I believe the 1918 flu will come back just as severe because people that are against medicine and vaccines the antivax groups already brought back probably 10 eradicated diseases

  19. I can’t believe that even after vaccination stopped this, there are still Anti-Vaccination movement. These Vaccines are life-savers.

  20. Surprisingly the Spanish flu killed more Americans than Spaniards and many coffin stores around the US sold out during this time also the spanish flu killed more people than the rest of the 20th century wars combined

  21. Goddamn Canadians. Always knew those polite, syrup-chugging Eskimos would come for us. Can trust anyone who apologizes for being Canadian.

  22. Just imagine being a doctor performing an autopsy and seeing your patient’s lungs filled with fluid, and worse still, you have NO IDEA WHY. There’s no disease you know of that causes that. I’d probably quit fast.

  23. I like how much wordier you make this with all these complex terms. Makes it sound more like a learning experience rather than entertainment although I watch for both.

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