Spanish Flu: The Real Origin of the 1918 Pandemic

Spain has the dubious honor of having the Spanish flu -the deadliest pandemic in history, which killed between 50 and 100 million people- named after her. But was Spain really the place of origin of the pandemic? Or has she snatched the name from worthier contenders?

She snatched it. According to researchers, the “Spanish” flu probably originated in France, the U.S., or China.

So the Spanish flu is not actually Spanish?

Sorry, but no. The Spanish were simply the first to report the existence of the epidemic.

Frontpage of a Spanish newspaper called El Sol.
The Spanish press was the first to report the epidemic. This Spanish paper is from May 28, 1918. The headline reads: “The three-day fever. There are 80,000 infected in Madrid. H.M the king is sick.”

The world was at war in 1918. Most countries in Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and Oceania were involved in it.

And, like so often happens during war time, the warring states had enforced a media blackout, to keep up the morale of the troops and the citizens.

Hence the media was unable to report the flu epidemic that was ravaging their cities.

But Spain was neutral.

So when in May 1918 the flu hit their land, the press reporteded it freely and widely, with mounting alarm.

Then, in May 28 the Spanish king Alfonso XIII fell ill with this plague (he survived), and the news reached the other European nations.

Since ‘the rest of the world’ had no news of their own flu epidemics, and they first read of it in the Spanish media, they believed it had began there and nicknamed it “Spanish flu.”

The Spaniards, on their part, called it the “French flu,” which is, as we will soon see, more accurate. They also mockingly called it “the Neapolitan soldier,” which was the title of a song that was very catchy… just like the flu.

When the flu reached Spain in May 1918, it had been circulating in neighboring France and in the U.S. for at least two months.

Theory 1: the Spanish flu came from China

Black and white picture inside a warehouse. It is filled with Chinese workers.
140,000 Chinese labourers arrived in France between 1916 and 1918 to help the Allies. They worked in factories, dug trenches, built roads. Pictured members of the the 51st Chinese Labour Company, in Teneur, France. Spring 1918. (Photo: David McLellan/Public domain)

France and the UK had a shortage of manpower during the last years of the war. So China -who favored the Allies- sent 140,000 laborers to Europe between 1916 and 1918 to work in factories, dig trenches, build roads, etc.

And according to some researchers, some of those workers would have brought the disease to Europe because there was a flu outbreak in the villages along the the Great Wall in late 1917.

And upon arrival to Europe, 3,000 Chinese workers fell ill.

But other researchers have turned down this hypothesis pointing out that:

1) the workers from that area arrived in Europe in January 1918. And smaller flu outbreaks had been reported in France before that, as far back as 1916.

2) the Chinese allies disembarked in western Canada, crossed the country by train, and embarked again on Canada’s eastern shore towards Europe. All that traveling took several weeks. Yet, there was no flu outbreak in Canada.

3) the places in Europe were the Chinese fell ill already had flu outbreaks, which points to them not bringing the flu, but instead getting it in Europe.

Plus, the current (semi) consensus is that the respiratory outbreaks along the Wall were flare ups of seasonal influenza not connected with the pandemic.

So much for a Chinese origin of the Spanish flu. Our apologies China, but it does not seem like the pandemic will be named after you after all.

Theory 2: the Spanish flu began in France

France was one of the epicenters of the war, where the Allied troops and the Germans collided.

At any given time, 2 million people from all over the world were in France helping in the conflict. They came from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India, China, Fiji, the West Indies…

With the overcrowding and the poor sanitary conditions of war, plenty of diseases were circulating, from ‘trench-fever’ caused by lice, to flus, thyphus, tuberculosis, and malaria.

And the deadly N1H1 virus, aka the Spanish flu, was surely present in France by March 1918.

But was the Spanish flu present in France even before?

There were several outbreaks of a deadly influenza in late 1916 and early 1917 in French soil.

A British soldier serving in northern France, private Walter Scott, was a healthy 33 year old. He reported to the military hospital with a “chilly sensation, headache, general pains, dry cough, and slight sore throat” in January 1917. Four weeks later he was dead.

According to the medical report, he had cyanosis, that is he turned blue for lack of air; and died of pneumonia. The cause of death listed in the report was influenza.

Oddly enough, cyanosis was going to be quite common the following year during the the Spanish flu outbreak.

Plus, the soldier was 33, an unusual age to die from common flu, but an age over-targeted by the Spanish flu.

And many of private Scott’s young comrades died from this flu in Etaples, France, in 1917.

In a paper published in the renowned medical journal The Lancet, in July 1917, doctors said soldiers were dying of a “purulent bronchitis” in southern England and northern France.

Many researchers think those early episodes were not seasonal influenza, but caused by an early version of the virus that mutated and caused the full-blown Spanish flu epidemic.

So the Spanish flu would have indeed originated in France.

More evidence for a French origin: pigs and mutations

The trenches in northern France were bombarded with mustard gas, which is know to be mutagenic.

Also in the camp at Etaples farm animals, such as pigs, were kept. And scientists believe the Spanish flu virus circulated in either pigs or birds before it mutated and infected humans.

So the mutagenic gas would have aided the virus to successfully jump to humans. And then to mutate into the Spanish flu strand.

And with that, Etaples rests its case.

Read more: Spanish flu: the story of the deadliest pandemic in history

Theory 3: the Spanish flu originated in the U.S.

The first recorded case -that surely was- of Spanish flu comes from a military training camp in Kansas, Camp Funston.

When the U.S. entered the war in 1917, it built 32 huge camps in its territory to train soldiers.

Camp Funston had 50,000 trainees.

One of them reported ill to the infirmary on March 4, 1918.

Hours later, a hundred more trainees were sick. Two weeks later, 1,100 were in hospital with the flu, and thousands more were sick in their barracks.

From there, the virus rapidly spread to other military camps.

And on that March, 84,000 U.S. soldiers were deployed overseas… to France.

In April, 118,000 more U.S. soldiers arrived in France. In total, the U.S. sent more than 2 million men to Europe.

That much is certain. Whether the virus was already circulating in the States before that, is more controversial.

The Spanish flu from Haskell, Kansas, to the world

Historian John Barrry tracked a severe outbreak of influenza in Haskell County, Kansas that began in January of 1918.

The local doctor, Loring Miner, was alarmed enough to report the situation to the Public Health Services.

His patients were getting a swift and intense flu which led to pneumonia.

Haskell’s newspaper, The Santa Fe Monitor read:

“Mrs. Eva Van Alstine is sick with pneumonia…Ralph Lindeman is still quite sick… Homer Moody has been reported quite sick… Pete Hesser’s three children have pneumonia… Ralph Mc-Connell has been quite sick this week… Mertin, …, is sick with pneumonia,…Most everybody over the country is having… pneumonia.”

Interestingly, according to Barry’s investigation, several young men of that town were recruited to serve in the Army.

And they were sent to Camp Funston. The outbreak of influenza was recorded in the camp a few days after they arrived.

That makes a pretty compelling case for Kansas as the origin place of the Spanish flu.

And the U.S. origin theory is the one with most supporters in the scientific world nowadays.

Yet, a few researchers have noted that a deadly flu was already circulating in New York City during the first months of 1918 (but was it the Spanish flu?), so they concede the flu was present in Kansas in early 1918 but do not think the outbreak began there.

Genetics weigh in: the Spanish flu began in the U.S.

Scientists that study the evolution of viruses also think the so-called Spanish flu originated in the U.S.

Due its genetic make-up, they argue, it probably originated in the Western Hemisphere, and probably in North America.

And they also believe the virus had been circulating for two or three years before mutating and exploding in 1918.

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