The ‘Flu Epidemic Of 1918

Born in Dublin, Brendan Ellis has worked in Theatre and Film for over fifty years as an Actor, Playwright, Director, Dramaturg, Artistic Director, Company Director, Set Designer and Stage Manager, rarely fulfilling more than two of these functions at the same time, and these days rarely one of them, except writing.

You never know where your research will lead you. Having explored sources relating to the ‘flu epidemic of 1918, Brendan Ellis was surprised at what he discovered.

In early 1918, in Kansas, U.S.A., a ‘flu developed among a small population of wild birds from whom it spread into a domesticated flock. As it happened, the young man in charge of that flock on his family’s farm was then conscripted into the Army where his duties included working as a cook. In March he fell seriously ill with the new ‘flu. He was Patient Zero.

Within three weeks the ‘flu had spread through the camp, infecting 1,100 people, 38 of whom died.

The troops were due to be deployed for further training elsewhere and the Commanding Officer expressed his concern about spreading this infection but Washington insisted and so the virus was carried to various camps, in Georgia, Missouri, Kentucky, Philadelphia, New Hampshire, and, in April, by boat, to Paris.

The virus took root in those areas, infecting and killing people in all of them, and into the trenches in France where some Officers had infected soldiers shot for malingering.

By the end of May 300,000 were infected and 30,000 had died from the disease.

It was brought into the United Kingdom by soldiers returning from the front to England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

It was identified in the civilian population in Manchester in June 1918 and within six weeks 100,000 were infected in the area. The Chief Medical Officer proposed closing the schools but the Government felt that that would be an overreaction.

By then millions of people were infected world-wide and 300,000 were dead from the virus.

The Chief Medical Officers in Britain recommended that people who were infected  should isolate themselves at home while the British Government insisted that it would not be expedient to close schools and businesses, and that spreading news of the epidemic would cause disaffection in the general populace which would be bad for the War Effort.

The virus continued to spread through all the theatres of the War, infecting people on all fronts and all sides, but the warring countries continued to keep it a secret under wartime censorship regulations.

When it crossed into Spain, where one of its victims was the King, Alfonso, the Epidemic was finally exposed.  Spanish press was not censored and published complete accounts of this dreadful contagion that had come out of nowhere and was spreading rapidly through the countryside. Hence, the “Spanish” ‘Flu.

By August 1918 the epidemic was beginning to recede in Europe at last.

But this was not the case in the United States where, in a military camp in Boston a new strain of the virus had appeared, more virulent, more tailored to humans as its host. The Commanding Officer of the Camp  wanted to notify the Authorities but he was over-ruled by his Military superiors who were anxious to send their troops into battle and they despatched 9,000 of them, a quarter of whom were already  infected, and some much-needed nurses on board The Leviathan where it continued to infect people,  bound for war-torn Europe carrying the virus back into the war, spread by U.S. troop movements through the rail network, then by all movements of just about anybody.

By September 1918, hundreds of millions of people were infected as it spread through the whole world, killing at least  50 million and possibly twice that number, and amongst all those millions was a young man who died on October 31st in Charlotte Street in Dublin, leaving behind a pregnant wife and two small sons, the eldest of whom, then three years of age, was my father, James Henry Ellis.

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