The outbreak of flu in 1918 was the most destructive disease to strike the world.  500 million people got the flu and 50 to 100,000,000 died.  In the United States 675,000 people died.  The flu easily killed more soldiers than the war.

Neither the Axis nor the Allied forces reported information on the flu.  It was and still is very difficult to accurately determine just how the soldiers on both sides were affected. This information was secret, and neither side wanted the other side to know how weakened their military capabilities had become because of the flu. At the end of the war the U. S. Navy reported that 40% were inflicted with the flu virus, and the U.S. Army reported that 36% had the flu. But it seems likely that these figures are not accurate. Many flu victims never went to the hospital where they would have become a statistic. Some of these flu victims of the initial outbreak were probably not very sick.

Spain was a neutral country with no censoring of the press, so the press freely published information about the flu. Because of this, most of the information about the flu in Europe came from Spain. Therefore this pandemic out break became known as the “Spanish Flu.”  However, no one believed that the “Spanish Flu” originated in Spain.

Where did this flu originate? That question has been asked for many years and is still not known.

John S. Oxford (born 6 March 1942) is an English virologist and respected author. He was a leading expert on influenza, including bird flu and the 1918 Spanish Influenza. He identified France as the center for the outbreak of the 1918 flu.  Dr. C Hannoun noted expert from the Institut of Pasteur, firmly believed that the disease originated in China. In the spring of 1918, many people, especially those from the United States, believed the flu was first seen at Camp Funston, located at Ft. Riley here in Kansas. Alfred W. Crosby, born 1931, is a Professor Emeritus of history, geography, and American studies at the University of Texas. In 1989 he published, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918. He too believed this 1918 flu started at Camp Funston in Kansas.

John M Berry, also a noted author, believed that the first evidence of flu was located in Haskell Co., Kansas.  Sublette, southwest of Garden City, is the largest town in this county. In late January and early February 1918, Dr. Loring Miner, a local physician, noticed an epidemic of influenza, significantly different than any he had ever seen. Many of his patients, were being struck down suddenly. These patients weren’t the typical elderly and young, but the strongest and the healthiest. Dr. Miner warned national public health officials about this flu outbreak. It was reported in The Public Health.   According to Mr. Berry, for the next 6 months this would be the only reference of flu noted in that journal or anywhere else in the world.

John Berry published The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. He strongly supports Haskell Co., Kansas as the beginning point of the 1918 flu pandemic. Mr. Berry was a football coach, a journalist, and author of nonfiction. John Berry made a great effort to dispute other evidence on the origin of the 1918 flu. However, much more knowledge has been discovered which provides credible evidence that the flu did not originate in Kansas.

Recently, Mark Humphries (of Canada’s Memorial University) unearthed records that confirm the mobilization of 94,000 Chinese laborers to work behind the British and French lines in World War I. These Chinese laborers may have been the source of the pandemic. This information was reported in 2014 by a National Geographic video. It was also reported in the Journal of War History. He states that in 1917 these northern Chinese people were shipped to England and France. They were brought to Vancouver, Canada and by train to Halifax where they embarked to England and France to work behind the lines and replace those workers who were now soldiers.

While in Canada their trip was kept secret, and they were guarded and prevented from leaving the train. Humphries discovered medical records indicating that more than 3,000 of the 25,000 Chinese Labor Corps workers who were transported across Canada en route to Europe starting in 1917, ended up in medical quarantine, many with flu-like symptoms. Some of the Chinese and some of the guards came down with flu like symptoms, much like that of the epidemic known as the “Spanish Flu.” After arriving in France many went to a Chinese hospital. Hundreds of Chinese died there with respiratory illness similar to the flu.

In his records, Humphries reports an outbreak of respiratory infections, which at the time were called endemic “winter sickness” by local Chinese health officials. A year later Chinese officials identified the disease as being identical to the Spanish flu. It caused dozens of deaths each day along China’s Great Wall. The illness spread 300 miles in six weeks in late 1917.

Christopher Langford has written several articles on the 1918/19 flu pandemic. He suggests that China suffered a lower mortality rate from the Spanish flu than did other nations. This suggests some immunity was provided the population, due to an earlier exposure to the virus. Influenza was widespread in China in 1918–19, but, it was mild in many places compared with elsewhere in the world. The most plausible explanation is that the 1918/19 influenza virus, had originated in China, so that many Chinese had prior exposure and had acquired some immunity. It is reasonable that Chinese workers traveling to France would have carried the virus with them, leading to the pandemic.

The most significant evidence supporting a different location for the initial outbreak of the Spanish Flu, were two articles published in Lancet. They were written by different medical officers in WWI.  The first document was published July 14, 1917.  It was titled, Purulent Bronchitis in British Troops in France. The second document was published in September 8, 1917. It was called, Purulent Bronchitis: Its influenzal and Pneumococcal Bacteriology.

Ed Note: When something is submitted for publication it is usually several months before it is actually seen in print.

However, in 2014 Michael Worobey, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, presented a very compelling story that the 1918 flu pandemic was probably started somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, and most likely from North America.  His evidence in based on using genomics to study this history of various strains of flu.  His evidence is noted in several publications and a video made by the University of Arizona.

These two published articles in Lancet and all the information noted above, strongly suggests (by date and location) the flu definitely did not begin in Kansas.  Furthermore, Michael Worobey makes a strong case the the 1918 H1N1 flu virus was hanging around a few years before 1918.

Perry Walters is a life long resident of the Tonganoxie, KS area. He graduated from Kansas University with a BS in Education with a minor in history and an AB in Science. He received a DDS degree from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He joined the Navy and served two years on active duty. One year was with the Fleet Marines in Okinawa. He retired from the Naval Reserves. He later received a Masters Degree in Periodontics and directed a graduate program in periodontics. Later he directed a hospital based dental clinic. After retirement he and his wife became active in the Tonganoxie Historical Society where he is the editor of their newsletter. He also films and edits movies of local people who know history.