|The Killer of 1918: Virus H1N1
By John M Barry
Journal of Translational Medicine, 20 January 2004
The 1918–1919 influenza pandemic killed more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history. The lowest estimate of the death toll is 21 million, while recent scholarship estimates from 50 to 100 million dead. World population was then only 28 percent what it is today, and most deaths occurred in a 16-week period, from mid-September to mid-December of 1918.
It has never been clear, however, where this pandemic began. Since influenza is an endemic disease, not simply an epidemic one, it is impossible to answer this question with absolute certainty. Nonetheless, in seven years of work on a history of the pandemic, this author conducted an extensive survey of contemporary medical and lay literature searching for epidemiological evidence—the only evidence available. That review suggests that the most likely site of origin was Haskell County, Kansas, an isolated and sparsely populated county in the southwest corner of the state, in January 1918. . .
[If] the contemporary observers were correct, if American troops carried the virus to Europe, where in the United States did it begin?
Both contemporary epidemiological studies and lay histories of the pandemic have identified the first known outbreak of epidemic influenza as occurring at Camp Funston, now Ft. Riley, in Kansas. But there was one place where a previously unknown—and remarkable—epidemic of influenza occurred.
|Location of Haskell County, Kansas
Haskell County, Kansas, lay 300 miles to the west of Funston. There the smell of manure meant civilization. People raised grains, poultry, cattle, and hogs. Sod houses were so common that even one of the county's few post offices was located in a dug-out sod home. In 1918 the population was just 1,720, spread over 578 square miles. But primitive and raw as life could be there, science had penetrated the county in the form of Dr. Loring Miner. Enamored of ancient Greece—he periodically reread the classics in Greek—he epitomized William Welch's comment that "the results [of medical education] were better than the system." His son was also a doctor, trained in fully scientific ways, serving in the Navy in Boston.
In late January and early February 1918 Miner was suddenly faced with an epidemic of influenza, but an influenza unlike any he had ever seen before. Soon dozens of his patients—the strongest, the healthiest, the most robust people in the county—were being struck down as suddenly as if they had been shot. Then one patient progressed to pneumonia. Then another. And they began to die. The local paper, Santa Fe Monitor, apparently worried about hurting morale in wartime, initially said little about the deaths but on inside pages in February reported, "Mrs. Eva Van Alstine is sick with pneumonia. Her little son Roy is now able to get up... Ralph Lindeman is still quite sick... Goldie Wolgehagen is working at the Beeman store during her sister Eva's sickness... Homer Moody has been reported quite sick... Mertin, the young son of Ernest Elliot, is sick with pneumonia... Pete Hesser's children are recovering nicely... Ralph McConnell has been quite sick this week." (Santa Fe Monitor, February 14th, 1918)
The epidemic got worse. Then, as abruptly as it came, it disappeared. Men and women returned to work. Children returned to school. And the war regained its hold on people's thoughts.
The disease did not, however, slip from Miner's thoughts. Influenza was neither a reportable disease nor a disease that any state or federal public health agency tracked. Yet Miner considered this incarnation of the disease so dangerous that he warned national public health officials about it. Public Health Reports (now Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report), a weekly journal produced by the U.S. Public Health Service to alert health officials to outbreaks of communicable diseases throughout the world, published his warning. In the first six months of 1918, this would be the only reference in that journal to influenza anywhere in the world.
|View Today from Haskell County's Major Crossroad
Historians and epidemiologists have previously ignored Haskell most likely because his report was not published until April and it referred to deaths on March 30, after influenza outbreaks elsewhere. In actuality, by then the county was free of influenza. Haskell County, Kansas, is the first recorded instance anywhere in the world of an outbreak of influenza so unusual that a physician warned public health officials. It remains the first recorded instance suggesting that a new virus was adapting, violently, to man.
If the virus did not originate in Haskell, there is no good explanation for how it arrived there. There were no other known outbreaks anywhere in the United States from which someone could have carried the disease to Haskell and no suggestions of influenza outbreaks in either newspapers or reflected in vital statistics anywhere else in the region. And unlike the 1916 outbreak in France, one can trace with perfect definiteness the route of the virus from Haskell to the outside world.
All Army personnel from the county reported to Funston for training. Friends and family visited them at Funston. Soldiers came home on leave, then returned to Funston. The Monitor reported in late February, "Most everybody over the country is having lagrippe or pneumonia." (Santa Fe Monitor, February 21st 1918) It also noted, "Dean Nilson surprised his friends by arriving at home from Camp Funston on a five days furlough. Dean looks like soldier life agrees with him." He soon returned to the camp. Ernest Elliot left to visit his brother at Funston as his child fell ill. On February 28, John Bottom left for Funston. "We predict John will make an ideal soldier," said the paper. (Santa Fe Monitor, February 28th, 1918)
These men, and probably others unnamed by the paper, were exposed to influenza and would have arrived in Funston between February 26 and March 2. On March 4 the first soldier at the camp reported ill with influenza at sick call. The camp held an average of 56,222 troops. Within three weeks more than 1,100 others were sick enough to require hospitalization, and thousands more—the precise number was not recorded—needed treatment at infirmaries scattered around the base.
Whether or not the Haskell virus did spread across the world, the timing of the Funston explosion strongly suggests that the influenza outbreak there did come from Haskell. Meanwhile Funston fed a constant stream of men to other American locations and to Europe, men whose business was killing. They would be more proficient at it than they knew.
Soldiers moved uninterrupted between Funston and the outside world, especially to other Army bases and France. On March 18, Camps Forrest and Greenleaf in Georgia saw their first cases of influenza and by the end of April 24 of the 36 main Army camps suffered an influenza epidemic. Thirty of the 50 largest cities in the country also had an April spike in excess mortality from influenza and pneumonia. Although this spring wave was generally mild—the killing second wave struck in the fall—there were still some disturbing findings. A subsequent Army study said, "At this time the fulminating pneumonia, with wet hemorrhagic lungs, fatal in from 24 to 48 hours, was first observed." (Pathology reports suggest what we now call ARDS.) The first recorded autopsy in Chicago of an influenza victim was conducted in early April. The pathologist noted, "The lungs were full of hemorrhages." He found this unusual enough to ask the then-editor of the Journal of Infectious Diseases "to look over it as a new disease."
By then, influenza was erupting in France, first at Brest, the single largest port of disembarkation for American troops. By then, as MacFarlane Burnet later said, "It is convenient to follow the story of influenza at this period mainly in regard to the army experiences in America and Europe."