Flu pandemic begins: March 11th 1918

If there was a Patient Zero of  great flu pandemic of 1918, it likely was Albert Gitchell.  He was a cook at the Army base in Fort Riley, Kansas and early on this morning, he struggles to the infirmary, with a bad headache, a very sore throat and a high fever.  He thinks it's a bad cold, but soon other soldiers are streaming into the hospital, complaining of similar symptoms. By noon, 100 of them are lying in the infirmary's beds.  Over the next few weeks, more than 1,000 men at Fort Rlley will be diagnosed with the mysterious disease and 46 of them will die.

Sadly, the outbreak is only getting started.  Many soldiers at the base ship out for Europe that spring to fight in World War I and soon the very contagious strain of flu is spreading through the continent and beyond.  That June, more than 31,000 cases are reported in Great Britain alone. But it becomes known as Spanish influenza because Spain, as a neutral country in the war, isn't  censoring news and so people read much more about the impact there.

Just when it seems the epidemic is ending, it returns with a vengeance that fall. And it's a more deadly version, one that atypically strikes down young and otherwise healthy adults instead of infants and old people.. Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of extreme fatigue, fever, and headache, victims start turning blue. Blood flows from their noses and mouths and sometimes their ears. Many suffocate to death from the fluid in their lungs only a day or two after realizing they're sick.

Some cities order everyone to wear masks, and schools, churches, restaurants and theaters are closed. A few towns even make it illegal to cough or spit in public.

By the end of 1918, the worst of the pandemic is over, but not before more than 600,000 Americans die. Worldwide, the toll is staggering; between 40 and 50 million people fall victim.

More Slices of History:

Aspirin is born: March 6, 1899 
Discovery of DNA: Feb. 28, 1953 
Alka-Seltzer born: Feb. 21, 1931 
First penicillin shot: Feb. 12, 1941 
Longest surgery: Feb. 4-8, 1951 
First Social Security check: Jan. 31, 1940 
First electric dental drill:  Jan. 26, 1875 
First x-ray demo: Jan. 13, 1896 
Smoking tied to cancer: Jan. 11, 1964
First U.S. appendectomy: Jan. 4, 1885