Plains Folk

Spanish Influenza


Across the country we observe the centennial of the Great War, World War I. Mostly we dwell upon the heroism and horrors of the conflict between the Allies and the Central Powers, and of course, here in the US we tell the story of how American entry into the war turned the tide.

There was a greater catastrophe at the same time, one we little remember. Scholars have concluded it killed some fifty million people. It tragically touched every community here on the prairies. It appears, too, that the terror originated on the American Great Plains. I refer to the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918.

Which wasn’t Spanish at all; it’s just that Spanish officials reported the epidemic openly before other nations did. Viral influenza is an endemic disease that now and then, as in 1918, mutates into a particularly virulent form. The flu of 1918 specifically struck young adults, people in the prime of life—such as the troops called up for wartime service.

More than 600,000 Americans died from influenza or from the pneumonia that complicated it. More than thirteen hundred North Dakotans died, despite the quarantines and other counter-measures deployed by county health officers and local physicians.

When we think of epidemic disease, we think of crowded cities or squalid conditions. This is misleading, for a disease can mutate or originate anywhere. Health authorities and medical historians who try to pinpoint the origins of a pandemic such as influenza in 1918 run into the chaos factor. It seems to pop up everywhere. Causes are obscure, connections hidden.

During the 1920s various theories emerged from the studies: that the disease came from Asia (just an assumption based on prejudice); that it incubated among British troops sent to France, whence it dispersed (a good theory, but not a good match with the historical documents); that it came from America, and crossed the Atlantic with the doughboys (the best explanation). America is a big country. More specifically, just what was the point of origin?

Historian John M. Barry has backtracked the contagion to the plains—specifically to Haskell County, Kansas. There the local physician, Dr. Loring Miner, confronted an outbreak of severe influenza in late January and early February 1918. The flu struck young adults, many of whom developed pneumonia and died.

In an important line of localized research, Barry documents that soldiers from Haskell County were coming home on furlough and then returning to Camp Funston, near Fort Riley, at the very time the disease was at its worst in their home community. These lads went back to camp in the last days of February and first days of March.

The first influenza case at Camp Funston dates from March 4. Soon there were hundreds, then thousands. Meanwhile, troops from Funston moved on to other military installations, then shipped out for Europe. Everywhere they went, they carried the influenza.

We know little of the physician, Loring Miner, who first isolated the terrible disease. He lived until 1935 and is buried in Garden City. He and his wife Lorena had twins, a boy and a girl, who, in an accident of history, were depicted in a photograph by the illustrious prairie photographer, F. M. Steele, who captured the image in a field of kaffir corn. I imagine that Dr. Miner frequently thought back to that butterfly moment in early 1918 when the Spanish influenza was just a local matter and not yet a worldwide pandemic.

The next time you wander a prairie cemetery, notice the graves of young adults dating from late 1918 and early 1919. Now you know their story.

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