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The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918

Fri, Mar 14th, 2003
Posted in Features

Joe and Emma Hermanson of Black Hammer are pictured with their 12 children and one son-in-law in the Fall of 1919. Influenza claimed the lives of Emma and six children in one week in February 1920. Photo courtesy of Ann Norskog Bratland

I had a little bird,

its name was Enza.

I opened the window,

and in-flu-enza.

(Children skipped rope to this rhyme during the flu epidemic.)

The 1918 influenza virus or Spanish flu was the worst epidemic the United States has ever known, taking the lives of an estimated 675,000 Americans, including 43,000 servicemen. More Americans died in one year from the influenza than in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. Yet, most people know very little about the epidemic or have almost forgotten that period of history.Unlike any strain ever seen, the mysterious killer virus spread across the country overflowing hospitals and filling mass graves. Joe Hermanson, lost his wife Emma, 42, and six of their twelve children in one week due to the deadly flu. He was the nephew of my mother's great-great grandmother, Kari Hermanson Ekse. A newspaper clipping from February 1920 reads: “The Joe Hermanson family of Black Hammer near Spring Grove is the most severely stricken family ever known in this section of the state. The family was taken sick the first of the month. Mrs. Hermanson died Wednesday, and Saturday the two oldest boys died, and in the night a nine-year-old boy. Monday afternoon and night two more died, and Tuesday still another making seven dead, while small hopes are entertained for two more. Mr. Hermanson is recovering.”Joe and two of the children, Evelyn and Henry, were taken to the Spring Grove Hospital. The children survived by the doctor draining fluid from their lungs, according to a family member. Emma's brother and niece assisted the remaining family members. Others left food on the porch and helped with the livestock chores.Due to severe cold and deep snow, the seven flu fatalities were placed in the summer kitchen for a later burial in the Black Hammer Cemetery, Houston County, Minnesota. All their names including Joe, who died nine years later, are on one tombstone.Only one of the children, Leonard Hermanson, now age 91, still survives. My mother, Char Nelson, and I recently visited Leonard who resides in the Houston Nursing Home. Leonard and his family lived in Looney Valley near Houston, where he had worked as a farmer and carpenter.I could sense that deep down sadness that has never gone away as Leonard described his “wonderful mother, Emma." Leonard then listed the names and ages, in 1920, of all twelve children. He further told of his six siblings that tragically died from the flu: Edwin-19, Clarence-18, Julia-16, Johnnie-12, Selmer-9, and Mabel-7. The six children that survived were Gena-20, Evelyn-15, Mina-13, Henry-10, Leonard-8 (himself), and Bernice-4. Mina's daughter, Ann Bratland, of Laurel, Montana, relayed to me that her mother had gone to help her older pregnant sister, Gena, who lived a mile down the road with her husband Chris Hanson. Mina found out about the family deaths in the Spring Grove paper, as the families had no phones.The First WaveThe point of origin of the influenza epidemic is thought to be Camp Funston, part of Fort Riley, Kansas on March 9, 1918. Blinding dust storms were sandwiched in between bone-chilling winters and sweltering summers. The camp's thousands of horses and mules produced a stifling, ever-accumulating, amount of manure, which was disposed of by burning. The dust combined with the manure ashes was said to have created a “stinging, stinking, yellow haze" turning the sky black. Two days later, over one hundred men were ill, all complaining of fever, sore throat and headache. More than five hundred were reported sick after another two days, many gravely ill with severe pneumonia. No one knew why. The elusive killer spread striking military camps throughout the country, just as draft call-ups and troop shipments were in high gear for a nation at war.In March and April, 1918, over 200,000 American World War I soldiers sailed across the Atlantic in overcrowded ships. The flu had established itself on two continents by May 1918. Little did the soldiers know they were carrying with them a virus that would kill tens of thousands by July 1918, and would be more deadly than their rifles. The influenza had now extended beyond the U.S. and Europe, and cases were reported in Russia, North Africa, India, China, Japan, the Philippines and New Zealand. This first wave was a mere prelude of what was to come that fall.I recently attended a lecture on the 1918 influenza at Luther College, presented by retired microbiologist, Professor John Tjostem. He explained that due to the world at war, the Americans and the Germans censored their flu statistics, while Spain, a neutral country, published their flu deaths in the newspapers. The epidemic would later be inaccurately dubbed the “Spanish flu." Professor Tjostem further explained that the 1918 influenza pandemic took four months to make its way around the world. With today's modern transportation, it would take only four days.The Second WaveIn the fall of 1918, the relentless flu was re-introduced from Europe with troops returning to the United States from World War I. It hit with vengeance, as the mutated virus was now more deadly than ever. The lethal flu spread from person to person by tiny droplets produced by coughing and sneezing. It was everywhere and no one was safe, as everyone had to breathe. Unlike any other flu, almost every family lost someone.Researchers had developed vaccines for diseases such as meningitis, diphtheria, and anthrax, which were caused by bacteria, but they had nothing to stop influenza, in 1918. Science was powerless, as the electron microscope needed to see the virus had not yet been invented. DNA and RNA, the genetic material of viruses, had not been discovered. Americans took to wearing gauze masks, but they were as effective as “keeping out dust with chicken wire."Many people turned to folk remedies such as garlic, camphor balls or kerosene poured on sugar. Schools closed and laws forbade spitting on the streets. Nothing worked. As the war raged, people gathered for rallies and bond drives where they coughed and infected each other. In October 1918 alone, more than 195,000 Americans died from the epidemic. A public health disaster had been created by the time the war ended, on Nov. 11, 1918. In some places, caskets had to be guarded from thieves due to the nationwide shortage.So Quick, so Sudden, so TerrifyingUnlike ordinary influenza that kills mainly the very young or elderly, the 1812 flu targeted young robust adults. Professor Tjostem stated, “the fact that twenty to forty year olds were hit the hardest is difficult to explain. People who had lived during a period when a major flu epidemic had previously hit were partially protected. The very young were likely more vulnerable because their immune systems were still developing."Twenty-five times more deadly than the normal flu, the 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 40-50 million people in the world. Within about 48 hours, most victims were dead. They had high delirious fevers, bloody noses, and coughed up blood. Eventually, their bodies turned purplish-blue, the lungs filled with reddish fluid, and they drowned in their own secretions.The Influenza VirusesThe three types of influenza virus are A, B, and C. Influenza A viruses are found in humans and animals, including pigs, horses, chickens, ducks, and some wild birds. Influenza B and C viruses are found only in humans and appear to be more stable than Influenza A.In 1918, influenza outbreaks appeared in humans and pigs almost simultaneously. It's unclear, however, if pigs infected the humans or the humans infected the pigs. Millions of pigs became ill with severe respiratory infection in the Midwest, decimating entire hog farms.Influenza viruses, like a chameleon, change their coats each year. Thus, one has to be inoculated each year to have sufficient immunity. In 1918, it's believed a new kind of subtype influenza A virus emerged that was closely related to what is now known as classic swine influenza virus. Pigs are thought to be an intermediary in this process, since they can be infected with both avian and human strains. The new virus was so different, that few had any kind of immunity, so it spread uncontrollably throughout the human population.In 1998, after 80 years, scientists identified the genetic code of the 1918 virus by autopsying lung tissue samples from three cases that represented the only know sources of genetic material. Two were paraffin wax samples belonging to U.S. servicemen stationed in Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Camp Upton, New York. The third belonged to a Native Eskimo woman, buried in a mass grave and preserved in permafrost, at the Brevig Mission in Alaska.Influenza in MinnesotaThe Preston Republican in the October 25, 1918 issue reported “In all health matters follow the advice of your doctor and obey the regulation of your local and state health officers. Cover up each cough and sneeze, if you don't you'll spread disease."This headline was published in Levang's Weekly in Lanesboro on January 29, 1920: “Influenza in Minnesota - Declared epidemic by State Board of Health, St. Paul. Health authorities throughout the state were immediately called upon to put into effect regulation for its control."Professor Tjostem recently contacted his former student, Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, on my behalf in regards to the flu that so tragically struck the Joe and Emma Hermanson family in February, 1920. Dr. Osterholm is the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Both Tjostem and Osterholm agreed that the Hermanson's flu could have been a “case of swine transmission back to humans in a more virulent form than that present in 1918."Forgotten EpidemicThe deadly 1918 influenza disappeared just as mysteriously as it started. Perhaps it ran out of people who were susceptible or the survivors developed immunity. What's known is “as soon as the dying stopped the forgetting began."

Deb Nelson Gourley, B.S., M.S., received her Animal Science and Reproductive Physiology degrees from the University of Minnesota. She was raised on the family 150-year-old homestead farm in Amherst (near Preston, MN), and is writing a book about her Norwegian heritage. You can visit the author's Norwegian Ancestry Series at for all of her stories. Deb can be reached at

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