By Tasha Caswell
Every year, each winter, flu season hits. Citizens are urged by the government and healthcare workers to get flu shots to protect themselves and others against the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that between 1976 and 2007 the number of deaths from flu in the United States has ranged from 3,349 in the 1986-87 season to 48,614 in 2003-04. It is the 1918-19 outbreak of Spanish influenza (also classified as H1N1), however, that is remembered as one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.
World War I certainly contributed to the pandemic. The first wave of flu, in the spring of 1918, appeared in Fort Riley, Kansas, where a military camp housed 26,000 men. Crowded conditions in camps in the United States and in the trenches in Europe were a significant factor in the rapid spread of the disease, which was further facilitated by the movements of soldiers.
World War I Hastens Spread of the Disease
In Connecticut, the state’s busy ports, and particularly New London’s Navy base, provided an easy point of entry for the disease. The state’s first recorded case of influenza appeared among Navy personnel in New London on September 11, 1918. By October 25, the State Public Health Service reported 180,000 cases. It appears the outbreak, after originating in New London County, moved to Windham and Tolland Counties and then continued on south and west to New Haven, Hartford, Fairfield, and Litchfield Counties. Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Waterbury recorded the most flu fatalities in the state, but smaller towns like Derby and Windham were also hard hit by the disease, with even higher death rates per thousand than in the larger cities. The war ended in November 1918, but the flu epidemic raged on.
By February 1919, the flu had finally subsided, leaving 8,500 dead in Connecticut. Five hundred thousand people died in the United States, and between 40 to 100 million died worldwide. Influenza is most likely to kill individuals over 65, but most of those who succumbed to the Spanish flu were young adults, servicemen, and others with their lives still ahead of them. This enormous loss of young men and women, following hard upon the bloodletting of World War I, left an entire generation with a tragic sense of the fragility of life.
Tasha Caswell is the Thorne-McKenna Curatorial Assistant at the Connecticut Historical Society