Church History
Influenza Pandemic of 1918
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“Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Church History Topics

“Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” Church History Topics

Influenza Pandemic of 1918

Between 1918 and 1920, about 500 million people (or about one-third of the world’s population) became infected with influenza. 1 With the contagion not yet identified as a virus, no vaccine to protect against the virus, no antibiotics to treat related bacterial infections, and irregular implementation of quarantines and disinfectants, the number of deaths worldwide likely surpassed 50 million. In terms of total deaths, this episode represented the worst pandemic in world history. 2 Like their fellow citizens, Latter-day Saints experienced disruption, sacrifice, and tragedy in their struggle to cope with the devastating effects of the global pandemic.

In the era of World War I, censorship laws in some nations led many public health officials and the press to downplay and occasionally obscure the magnitude of the crisis. In Spain, which remained neutral during the war, the uncensored press reported the rapid spread of the disease throughout the country, leading many to assume the virus originated there. Reports commonly referred to the pandemic as the “Spanish Flu,” a misnomer that persisted into the 21st century. 3 The war exacerbated the spread of the disease, which intensified in three distinct waves, further complicating awareness of the pandemic’s origins. 4 Researchers have not universally agreed on where the virus first spread, but the earliest documented outbreaks occurred in the United States. In March 1918 more than a hundred soldiers fell ill at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, and within a week the number of cases increased five-fold. Infected soldiers who did not show symptoms carried the virus to Europe during their deployment in World War I. 5

The first outbreak of influenza near Church headquarters in Utah was noted in October 1918. Within three weeks, the number of cases in Utah reached 2,300 with 117 deaths. 6 The Relief Society coordinated with hospitals and recruited women to assist in afflicted homes as nurses, housekeepers, cooks, laundresses, and other helpers. In some school districts, as many as 90 percent of children came down with the flu. Church President Joseph F. Smith died of pneumonia in November 1918, and because of quarantine standards, his funeral was not public. 7 The First Presidency complied with state health regulations and closed all temples, meetinghouses, and the Salt Lake Tabernacle, and they advised local leaders to cancel all Church activities and services. 8 They delayed the April 1919 general conference so Latter-day Saints could distance themselves from one another and prevent further spread of the disease. When the conference convened the following June, Church President Heber J. Grant reported that 1,054 Saints worldwide had died from influenza. 9

The pandemic devastated many Latter-day Saint communities throughout the world. In the village of Sauniatu, Samoa, only 12-year-old Tom Fanene and an elderly man escaped falling ill when influenza struck in November 1918. As their 400 fellow villagers lay sick, Tom slaughtered all the village chickens to make soup, climbed trees to harvest coconuts, and delivered food and fresh spring water house to house. He and the elderly man wrapped the dead in mats and buried them in rocky ground behind their homes. 10

In New Zealand, mission president James Lambert observed how public spaces in Auckland had closed and medical facilities were overwhelmed. 11 In December 1918 as the pandemic had begun to ebb, the Makura passenger ship carried more than 200 people, including 12 Latter-day Saints, into Auckland Harbor. During the voyage across the Pacific, passengers discovered several cases of flu and measles on board. Local officials ordered a quarantine to prevent “reinfection of Auckland” from overseas steamers, prohibiting passengers of the Makura from disembarking. Mere Whaanga, Apikara Pomare, Isaiah Whaanga, Sidney Christy, Kate Christy, and seven children remained on the ship for more than a week before coming ashore. 12

World War I ended as the second wave of the pandemic began to abate. Many citizens in Utah celebrated the end of the war with parades and festivals, which increased the rate of infection. 13 Church leaders took additional measures to curb the disease, such as using small individual cups instead of a single shared cup for the sacrament and recommending other hygienic procedures for preparing the sacrament. 14 A combination of public health interventions, such as school and church closures, mass gathering prohibitions, mask-wearing mandates, quarantines, and disinfecting measures, slowed the pandemic. 15 Cases dropped in the spring and summer of 1919, and by 1920 influenza became a seasonal epidemic, a pattern still experienced each year throughout the world. 16

Related Topics: World War I, Joseph F. Smith

Notes

  1. Scientists later determined this strain of influenza resulted from a “novel H1N1 influenza A virus”; see Jeffery K. Taubenberger, Ann H. Reid, Amy E. Krafft, Karen E. Bijwaard, and Thomas G. Fanning, “Initial Genetic Characterization of the 1918 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Virus,” Science, vol. 275, no. 5307 (1997), 1793–96; see also Douglas Jordan with Terrence Tumpey and Barbara Jester, “The Deadliest Flu: The Complete Story of the Discovery and Reconstruction of the 1918 Pandemic Virus,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dec. 17, 2019, cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “History of 1918 Flu Pandemic,” Mar. 21, 2018, cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline,” Mar. 20, 2018, cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources; World Health Organization, Avian Influenza: Assessing the Pandemic Threat (2005), 25. Because data collection at the time often ignored indigenous communities, the worldwide mortality of the pandemic may have reached as high as 100 million; see Niall P. A. S. Johnson and Juergen Mueller, “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918–1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 76, no. 1 (2002), 105–15.

  3. John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York: Viking, 2004), 393–94.

  4. Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 1 (2006), 15–22.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline,” cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources.

  6. Leonard J. Arrington, “The Influenza Epidemic of 1918–19 in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 2 (1990), 167–69.

  7. Reports prior to his death indicated Joseph F. Smith suffered from chronic infections common to old age in the era before the invention of antibiotics. Joseph F. Smith’s death certificate listed bronchopneumonia as the primary cause of death, suggesting that the physicians who attended him considered his decline the result of his prior illness and not the onset of influenza. See “Four Score Years Have Passed Over Head of Venerable Church President,” Deseret Evening News, Nov. 13, 1918, 1; Joseph Fielding Smith, Death Certificate, Utah State Department of Health, Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Death Certificates Series 81448, https://archives.utah.gov/indexes/data/81448/2229752/2229752_0000939.jpg; “President Joseph F. Smith, Venerable Church Leader, Summoned by Death Following Illness of Several Months,” Deseret Evening News, Nov. 19, 1918, 1.

  8. Passing Events,” Improvement Era, vol. 22, no. 1 (1918), 89.

  9. In Conference Report, June 1918, 74.

  10. Kenneth W. Baldridge, “Sauniatu, Western Samoa: A Special Purpose Village, 1904–34,” Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 87, no. 3 (1978), 165–92.

  11. James N. Lambert, Journals, 1916–1919, Nov. 4, 6, and 18, 1918, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  12. The Makura,” Dominion, vol. 12, no. 58 (1918), 5; Lambert, Journals, Dec. 8, 1918; Florence H. Jensen, Journal, 1917 December–1918 December, Nov. 18–19, 1918, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  13. Arrington, 170–71, 181.

  14. Justin R. Bray, “The Lord’s Supper during the Progressive Era, 1890–1930,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 38, no. 4 (2012), 103–4.

  15. Martin C. J. Bootsma and Neil M. Ferguson, “The Effect of Public Health Measures on the 1918 Influena Pandemic in U.S. Cities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 104, no. 18 (2007), 7588–93.

  16. Arrington, 182; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “1918 Pandemic Influenza Historic Timeline.”