Blog / Disease Epidemics

That flu was not Spanish, and it is still following you!



How can a virus be so dangerous, when it only kills a few persons per one hundred infected? 1% or 2% sounds kind of low. Kind of hopeful, unless you’re the one or the two. Or if everyone you know is infected. At that rate, a town of one million infected would lose 10,000 to 20,000 thousand people. Souls, say some. To say nothing of the pain of those who become deathly sick, and still make it through. Any towns near you with those populations?

The Spanish flu was one of those with about 2% lethality. In 1918 and 1919, in three waves, as many as 50 million people may have died worldwide, with over 675,000 deaths in our country. As many as 14,000 may have died here in Kentucky. And that is not counting the other half billion or so people who were infected and suffered and yet survived.

Why was it called the Spanish flu? Because all the other nations were at war, and Spain was the only country that reporters could get into. I know you’re thinking China, but consider Kansas. Go look up Dr. Loring Miner.

The truth is, nobody knows precisely where it started. But whether here or over there, viruses are harbored in many different forms in many different animals everywhere. And in many different animals that humans keep close to raise and eat. The Spanish flu started in some bird [avian] reservoir, and probably moved into pigs [swine], before jumping over to humans [you].

There is a history of these viral pandemics, and now a science to describe them. But there wasn’t in 1918. No electron microscope to see them. No polymerase chain reaction to amplify ribonucleic acid (RNA), that molecule carrying its genetic code. And it wasn’t until Watson and Crick’s model that we even knew of the structure of nucleic acids, and could start working on its code. That was in the early 1950’s, just a decade or so after the electron microscope had been invented, and scientists finally first saw this viral agent.

We call World War I the “Great War,” and the devastation was immense. But it was not nearly as destructive as that other war of 1918. The viral one. That is the one we forgot about and now remember. For the tiny enemy has struck again with a new viral vengeance. We apparently did not learn our lesson, from the war we only now remember, as a “flu,” and only thought of as an historical nuisance.

The “Spanish flu” (H1N1) of 1918 was a different virus from that fatty acid sphere that we have now crowned as the coronavirus, “Covid-19″(Corona Virus Disease-19.) Covid-19 is the one that’s currently shutting us down, keeping us home, killing us, and ravaging our economy.

But get this. These terrors don’t just go away. We can drive them off with vaccines, but other strians may still remain present in animal populations, where they can mutate, and recombinate into slightly different ones, which might jump back into our populations to do battle with our immune systems again. With new proteinaceous weapons used against our tried, and now focused, defenses.

And we mostly win, but must always be ready. For the pandemics. The influenza pandemics [yes, worldwide] of 1957, 1968, and 2009 were related to that 1918 virus that you call “Spanish.” All are influenza type “A” viruses, with the 2009 virus being a subtype strain having the same H1N1 designation as the one in 1918.

We are a modern people, and 1918 was a faraway time. With our economic output, we have new systems, machines, and medicine. This is really hubris talking, even if seemingly true.

What are you doing in this current crises? Social distancing? Yup, they did that then. Closing schools, bars, and movie theaters? Yes indeed, that too. Facemasks? Are you sewing yours now? You can now find full-page instructions on how to do so in our national newspapers. Don’t know how to wear one? Look at pictures from 1918. Some of those caregivers were wearing full-body protection, too.

There is no proven cure for these flu viruses. Antiviral drugs, in some cases, can moderate the symptoms, but antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Identify them early enough, however, and our scientists can develop a vaccine. Vaccines are really just training your body to defend for itself.

But we do have better hospitals and medicines for what often happens to you next. And we do have antibiotics [does that word mean “against life?”] to attack the secondary bacterial infections in your lungs that often come later. “The Captain of the men of death,” it is said. Bacterial pneumonia.

But those medicines won’t knock out these viral pneumonia killers. Though mechanical ventilators will help a patient breathe through the crises brought on by their presence. That is why there is such an emergency effort now, to manufacture more ventilators during our present pandemic, the coronavirus one, Covid-19.

And perhaps more importantly, America has more and better-trained nurses and physicians. And I should include, in this group, all those risking their health, and that of their families, keeping the hospitals open. And let’s not forget those operating nursing homes, supermarkets, cleaning services, and all the others out there on the front lines. Like the first responders on 911, these are all American heroes. And they are located in every town across the nation. You can see them being cheered on in social media.

Thank you.

So when you think of that 1918 epidemic, don’t think of it being Spanish-generated. It was not. These viruses are human diseases. They have been around with us for a long time, and will march forward with us into the future.

Be humble. Viruses may be small, but they are much more numerous. And they seem to have a spooky capability to evolve quickly. They are probably found in all classifications of life. They are an ancient life form, older than you.

But it is natural selection, you say. Survival of the fittest. Culling the drain on society’s resources, by primarily killing the older ones. Perhaps you are foolishly young, or wrongly foolish, in your thinking.

Consider this: the virus may be smarter than you. In 1918 and 1919, the greatest number of deaths was in the middle aged group of around 20 to 40 years of age.

Still excited by such evolutionary theory? Or are you just feeling lucky in this current pandemic? We are all just vulnerable youngsters on this evolutionary stage.

So let us join together and do what our leaders expect, to fight this virus, separate and together.

And, for now, stay home and be safe.

About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!


  • John Wilpers
    April 18, 2020 at 9:30 am

    Very well done, and very helpful in understanding what’s going on and what went on back in 1918 and how similar our two battles are. Thank you!

  • Krisitne Adams
    April 22, 2020 at 9:32 am

    Thanks so much. In trying to find my own bead on the current tyranny of information (& Trumped-up misinformation), I researched how many in my own family fell to the 1918 pandemic. Just one, that I can confirm, the most creative, a musician, named for a Shakespearian character. Her granddaughter sent boxes of genealogical data, to clear her closets and shed the weight of family history. You’re right-on about the hubris of our era. None of us stand at a pinnacle, but are borne along a tide with all the rest of (known) life. As a member of CRT, I hope to chat in person one day. For now, I’ll hunker down on this hillside, circled by Hoosier Nat. Forest, and walk around the pond for its therapeutic effect. And garden. And sew facemasks to send friends working in senior healthcare sites. And Zoom with my adult kids. And crave time with my 4-month old g-girl!


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