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Useful Notes / The Spanish Flu

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"I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flew-Enza"
— Popular children's rhyme in 1918

The 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish Flu or the Great Influenza epidemic, was a global pandemic that ravaged the world in the late 1910s, peaking in late 1918 as World War I was winding down. The pandemic is conservatively estimated to have killed about 50 million people, more than died in the war, and some estimates go as high as 100 million. Furthermore, it infected some 500 million people, and this at a time when the entire world population was approximately 1.8 billion. To this day, it ranks as the largest and deadliest pandemic in modern human history and the second-deadliest ever recorded, beaten out solely by The Black Death. And even then, it took the Black Death a century to exceed what the Spanish Flu managed in just two years.

The pandemic almost certainly did not actually originate in Spain. Spain was a neutral country during the war, so — unlike the contending countries, which censored news of the spread of the disease in order to not signal weakness to enemy nations and/or hinder their own morale — Spaniards simply reported on it more honestly, creating the false impression that it was especially bad there. However, the name stuck. The actual origin of the pandemic is unknown to this day, although the most popular theories claim that it began in the United States, China, or elsewhere in Europe. The first known case was reported in Fort Riley, Kansas on March 4, 1918. Other early reports came from France (Brest), Germany, and the United Kingdom.

As you might imagine, influenza normally poses the greatest risk to children and the elderly. In the case of the Spanish Flu, however, the highest proportion of fatalities were among healthy adults. This is believed to be due to the virus triggering a cytokine storm, essentially the body's immune system Gone Horribly Right. At the time, most doctors assumed that influenza was caused by bacteria. In fact, influenza is caused by viruses, but they were too small to see with the microscopes that were available in the 1910s. It wasn't until the 1940s that the influenza virus was properly identified. It is now known that the Spanish Flu was caused by the H1N1 virus, which was also responsible for the much smaller "swine flu" pandemic in 2009. While the 2009 strain was far less lethal than the 1918 strain, it nonetheless shared its proclivity for targeting healthy young adults.

Scientists are still not completely sure why the 1918 strain was so deadly, but one thing that certainly didn't help was that many people in leadership positions at the time saw this flu thing as a distraction from the all-important war effort. Infamously, Philadelphia held a massive Liberty Loan Parade, against the warnings of health officials, and ended up being one of the worst-hit cities in the U.S. As the disease spread across the world, leaders did take action sooner or later, often (tragically) later. Actions varied from place to place, but generally involved typical public health measures like instituting quarantines, banning public gatherings, and closing schools, churches, and many businesses. Many people wore face masks, and in some places, they were compulsory. (And there was just as much politicized resistance, including superspreader gatherings.)

Given the purpose of this wiki, the Spanish Flu's impact on the nascent film industry is of particular relevance. Between California's ban on public gatherings preventing the shooting of crowd scenes and the shuttering of movie theaters eliminating the demand for new films, Hollywood ended up shutting down production for over a month in late 1918. At the time, most cinemas in the U.S. were independently owned, and the loss of months of revenue left many of their owners financially ruined. This enabled the major Hollywood studios, particularly Paramount under Adolph Zukor, to swoop in and purchase up those struggling independent theaters for peanuts. That gave the studios more control over distribution, paving the way for the studio system that would dominate The Golden Age of Hollywood.

No doubt due in part to the wartime censorship, the Spanish Flu has long been overshadowed by World War I. In older works set during the relevant time period, you'll be lucky if there's any mention at all that an apocalyptic influenza outbreak was going on at the same time as the war. This has been somewhat corrected in recent decades, and nowadays, the Spanish Flu will, at the very least, merit a token mention in most fiction about World War I. It also tends to be brought up as a comparison in works dealing with The Plague (and as of recent times, to COVID-19).

Compare: The Black Death, COVID-19 Pandemic

Spanish Flu survivors with a TV Tropes page:

  • Raymond Chandler: While fighting in the trenches in France, he was twice hospitalized with the Spanish Flu.
  • Walt Disney: At the time, he had volunteered to be a Red Cross ambulance driver for the war effort. He was sixteen years old, having lied about his age to get into the war. He actually caught the flu while training in Chicago, recovered, and then went back to finish training and, ultimately, arrive in Europe after Armistice Day.
  • Lillian Gish: She caught the disease during pre-production on the D. W. Griffith film Broken Blossoms. Her scenes in that movie were filmed before she'd fully recovered. Months after her recovery, she noted that, "the only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns — have to wear them all winter — horrible things."
  • Franz Kafka: Already suffering from tuberculosis, the Prague writer caught the Spanish Flu in October, 1918 and was left bedridden for a month. Due to what was going on at the time, he entered his convalescence as a Habsburg subject, but left it as a Czechoslovak citizen.
  • David Lloyd George: He caught the virus during a ceremonial visit to Manchester, resulting in him spending ten days in a makeshift ward at the Manchester Town Hall. For the sake of wartime morale, the severity of his condition was downplayed at the time.
  • Edvard Munch: His condition inspired him to create the 1919 painting Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, which was later followed by Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu.
  • Mary Pickford: She was struck during production on the 1919 film The Hoodlum and became too sick to work for four weeks. Against her doctor's advice, she went back to work before she'd fully recovered.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt: Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time, the future president had traveled to France near the end of the Great War to meet with other Allied officials. He caught the Spanish Flu while traveling home on the troop carrier U.S.S. Leviathan. He became seriously ill, also acquiring a secondary pneumonia infection; when the ship docked in New York City, he was still so weak he had to be carried off the ship on a stretcher.
  • Woodrow Wilson: He fell ill during the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. Although the press was assured that it was just a cold brought on by the "chilly and rainy weather" in Paris, his doctor knew — and told Wilson at the time — he was suffering from the Spanish Flu. The effects of the illness undoubtedly hampered Wilson's effectiveness at Versailles (to say nothing of the other Allied leaders he might have infected), almost certainly began the decline in Wilson's health that climaxed with a debilitating stroke later the same year, and set the precedent for those closest to Wilson to out-and-out lie to the press, the American people, and the world at large about said health.

Depictions in fiction:

Anime & Manga

Comic Books

  • Charley's War has the pandemic crop up towards the end when Charley's mother contracts the disease and dies, with this being partly attributed to her work in an ammunition factory.


  • In a flashback to George's childhood from It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Gower's telegram says that his son died of influenza. The Spanish Flu isn't mentioned explicitly, but the fact that the telegram is dated "May 3, 1919" makes it pretty clear.
  • The Spanish flu shows up briefly in Northern Light, the short film shown at Fort Edmonton Park.
  • A 1982 film on Australian criminal "Squizzy" Taylor had the title character and his gang using the masks everyone was wearing against influenza to hide their identities while committing crimes.
  • It comes up in Testament of Youth, anachronistically portrayed as already ongoing at the start of the war in 1914.
  • The 1985 independent film 1918note  is set in the titular year, portraying how the war and the flu pandemic impact a small town in Texas.


  • The pandemic features in the Backstory of The Twilight Saga. Specifically, Edward Cullen was dying of the Spanish Flu in 1918 when he was made a vampire as an Emergency Transformation.
  • Kate Atkinson's Life After Life uses it as a main plot point (the flu kills the protagonist several times over).
  • In One For Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn, the young narrator is tormented by the ghost of a classmate who died of the Spanish Flu. In an afterword, Hahn explains that her mother witnessed the pandemic as a child in Baltimore and nearly died of the flu herself in the spring of 1919. Her mother's stories were the main inspiration for the novel.
  • Characters in Emergence believe that the epidemic affected the DNA of women who would become the grandmothers of a new Human Subspecies, homo post hominem. There are hominem characters too old for this explanation to apply. In those cases, it's believed that similar genetic alteration occurred in more isolated cases of the flu.
  • One of the mysteries investigated in the Dr. Watson At War series by Robert Ryan is what really happened to a hospital ferry supposedly sunk by the dastardly Germans. Turns out the ferry was transporting a trainload of Chinese migrant workers infected with the "Blue flu" who were subject to an EXTO (Exceptional Termination Order) by the British government in an attempt to stop the pandemic from spreading.
  • In Phoenix and Ashes (set in the early stages of World War I), an evil British sorceress conjures a plague spirit that will primarily target the young and healthy and sends it to America to disrupt their war effort.

Live-Action TV

  • Prominently featured in an episode of Downton Abbey - only one episode, mind, but the series tends to Time Skip several months between each one. Used for a Tonight, Someone Dies plot, as several major characters contract it.
  • The Leverage episode "The Rundown Job" features a terrorist plotting to unleash the Spanish Flu on modern-day Washington, D.C.
  • The Ministry of Time: In the episode "A Virus from Another Time", the Spanish Flu virus is brought forward in time from 1918 to the present day.
  • The American Experience covered it in the episode "Influenza 1918."
  • It's mentioned in the last episode of Fall of Eagles, including the fact that Prince Maximilian of Baden caught it.
  • In the Adam Ruins Everything episode "Reanimated History: A Hundred Years Ago Today," he debunks the narrator's claim that World War I was the deadliest event in the 20th century before World War II, by saying that although the war killed an approximately 15 million people, the disease killed up to 100 million.
  • An early episode of NUMB3RS involves several people falling victim to a mysterious illness that turns out to be the Spanish Flu, nearly a century after the original epidemic. It is revealed that a lab sample of the virus was intentionally released by a Well-Intentioned Extremist scientist who believed that the medical industry was about to make a huge mistake that could cost millions of lives in the event of a spontaneous outbreak of said virus, so he engineered a limited outbreak to highlight the error in hopes that it would be corrected before a true epidemic occurs.

Tabletop Games

  • Wraith: The Oblivion makes the Spanish Flu a big part of its Great War historical setting. First, with Charon effectively missing in action, the Deathlord in charge of those who died of violence tries to use his rising numbers to seize power… until the Deathlord in charge of those who died of illness, who is a loyalist, gets a similar boost from the epidemic. Second, the conjunction of the epidemic and the massive deaths at the Somme leads to the Fourth Great Maelstrom, which only makes things even more tumultuous in the Shadowlands.

Video Games

  • Vampyr (2018) is set in London during the flu pandemic. It is especially pertinent because the player character, Jonathan, is a doctor and dealing with the health of various NPCs forms a large part of the experience.
  • Fallen Legion Revenants was inspired by the 1918 pandemic, then ironically released in 2021. While in a fantasy world, it references fashion from England at the time and calls its disease "The Miasma", referencing "miasma theory" that people believed about diseases before bacteria/viruses were discovered.
  • In Resident Evil Village, it is eventually revealed that Eva, the daughter of Mother Miranda, died during the pandemic, driving Miranda to madness and causing her to devote her life to trying to bring her back. At one point she saved Oswald Spencer, one of the founder's of the Umbrella corporation, and her research inspired him to begin researching viruses, making her the Greater-Scope Villain for the entire franchise.

Web Animation

  • Extra Credits did an episode on it for the hundredth anniversary in 2018.
  • History Matters did a video on it, featuring the H1N1 virus as a character in its own right, depicted as a pathogen wearing a Spanish hat.