The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918 Will Be Discussed at Island Library

May 09, 2018
Source: Library of Congress

A program titled “Forgotten Flu… Now Remembered” will be presented by Jim Curley at the Long Beach Island branch of the Ocean County Library, located at 217 South Central Ave., Surf City, from 10 a.m. to noon on Thursday, May 17.

Two incredible battles were simultaneously raging around the globe 100 years ago. World War I was grinding toward its climax, with a German spring offensive bringing the Kaiser’s forces to within artillery range of Paris before the addition of almost five million American troops finally tipped the scale on the Western Front in favor of the Allies over the Central Powers. Don’t think all of the action was on the bloody fields or in the muddy trenches of France – German submarines were busy off the New Jersey coast, with one, U-151, sinking six U.S. ships in the course of a few hours on June 2, 1918.

Meanwhile, a virulent strain of influenza was hopscotching around the planet like a wildfire on a windy day. It was unusual in the sense that flu typically kills the very young and the old, but this strain was particularly lethal to young adults whose healthy immune systems normally beat influenza into submission.

The 1918 flu could be a silent Ninja-like assassin, sneaking up and dispatching a victim quickly and efficiently, “so suddenly,” wrote John M. Barry in his acclaimed 2004 book The Great Influenza, “that throughout the world reports were common of people who toppled off horses, collapsed on the sidewalk.”

So, which killed more? The shells, machine guns, poison gases and infantry charges of WWI, which lasted from 1914 to, famously, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, or the 1918-19 influenza virus? It is amazing the question can even be asked considering billions of dollars – in an era where a dollar stretched a lot further than it does today – were spent developing the technology of war while viruses are simple organisms that Barry said are “an enigma that exist on the edges of life.”

Well, the numbers on both sides are stunning.

A general estimate of the number of combatants killed in WWI is almost 10 million. Meanwhile almost six million civilians succumbed.

But the Spanish flu – a misnomer considering scientists argue over where the virus originated, with China, France and, of all places, Haskell County, Kansas, being major suspects – infected around 500 million people worldwide, from remote Pacific atolls to the Arctic, and killed somewhere between 50 million and 100 million of them.

However, those numbers can be conflated because the war and the pandemic were strongly related. Crowded troop ships helped spread the virus across oceans. The flu may have blunted the German spring offensive of 1918, which was, at first, wildly successful, but ground to a halt as sickness spread through the army’s ranks. And the principal reason for Philadelphia becoming ground zero in the U.S. pandemic was that authorities allowed a gigantic Liberty Loan (bond) parade that stretched for 2 miles to step off on Sept. 28 despite repeated scientific warnings that crowding hundreds of thousands of people together in one place was a prescription for the spreading of influenza, which had already infected over 1,000 people at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

There’s so much to talk about when tackling the influenza pandemic of 1918; it will be interesting to see what Curley will focus on come May 17.

Pre-registration is requested. Call 609-494-2480 or visit to sign up.—R.M.

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