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The Spanish Flu 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 traditionally 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 at a time when the world population was approximately 1.8 billion. To this day, it ranks as the largest and deadliest pandemic in human history.
The pandemic did not actually originate in Spain. Neutral Spain simply reported on it more honestly due to the lack of wartime censorship, 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 either China or the United States. The first known case was reported in Fort Riley, Kansas on March 4, 1918.
As you might imagine, influenza normally poses the greatest risk to children and the elderly. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, the Spanish Flu instead targeted healthy young adults. 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 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.
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.
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 was working as a Red Cross ambulance driver in the war. He was sixteen years old, having lied about his age to get into the war.
- 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."
- Mahatma Gandhi
- 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.
- Franz Kafka
- 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 caught the Spanish Flu while serving on the troop carrier U.S.S. Leviathan. He became very ill, acquiring a secondary pneumonia infection, but recovered by the time the ship docked in New York City.
- 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, it's now understood that Wilson was suffering from the Spanish Flu.
Depictions in fiction:
- 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.
- 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 Back Story of the Twilight franchise. 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).
- 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.
- Vampyr is set in London during the flu pandemic.
- Extra Credits did an episode on it for the hundredth anniversary in 2018.