The Influenza Pandemic

1918 Pandemic illustrationPandemic

It's difficult to imagine, but more American service personnel died of influenza during World War I, than died in combat. The estimate of flu deaths tops 60-thousand. By 1918, four years of war had brought a massive movement of people across continents. That set up conditions for a perfect storm of influenza.

Spanish Flu

This particularly virulent strain became known as "Flanders Fever" or "Spanish Flu." Spain was neutral in World War I, and was therefore free of the wartime press censorship rules which were in place in combatant countries. Spanish newspapers reported about the pandemic in depth, and historians say that's how it became known as "Spanish Flu."

First Wave

The first wave of influenza came in March of 1918. In America, it showed up at Camp Funston, a portion of Fort Riley, Kansas. That's where many Americans soldiers arrived for their initial military training. A second, more virulent wave followed in August. It broke out simultaneously in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone; in the French seaport of Brest, where American troops arrived in France; and in Boston. The flu strain was highly infectious, and turned quickly to pneumonia. Over the next several months, it would claim more than 25 million lives worldwide.

Missoula City-County Health Director Ellen Leahy on the first wave of the 1918 pandemic

Flu in Montana

Historical Museum at Fort Missoula researcher Alan Johnson says the first case of "Spanish Flu" in Montana was in Scobie, but it soon spread. Missoula County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy says over the next seven months it would claim about five-thousand lives, or about 1% of Montana's population at the time. Leahy says the pandemic began in Missoula in October 1918 and lasted until March 1919. She says the infection rate reached about 25% in the city.

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<p><a href="">1918 influenza pandemic in Missoula</a> from <a href="">Ray Fanning</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>

Missoula City-County Health Director Ellen Leahy on the 1918 pandemic in Missoula

First Missoula Death

The first reported Missoula death was George Bonewitz on October 13. He was serving at the SATC camp at Fort Missoula. The two SATC camps would ultimately lose 15 soldiers and five nurses to the flu.

The "W" Curve 

The young and the old are usually most at risk of dying from the flu. But Leahy says the 1918 flu also killed many people who should have been least at risk, those between 20 and 40 years of age.

Influenza W curve


1918 Influenza W curve

This is known as the "W Curve" because of the pattern the distribution of deaths creates on a graph. Johnson says the latest research indicates that the healthy immune systems of people between 20 and 40 may actually have increased their mortality. He says researchers believe the victims' healthy immune systems may have overreacted to this particular strain of the virus, producing so much fluid, that their lungs filled, and they drowned.

Missoula City-County Health Director Ellen Leahy on the influenza W curve

Preventative Measures

 To try to stop the spread of flu, Missoula closed its schools and its churches, although saloons remained open. The city passed a "move on" ordinance for bars that required patrons to get their drinks and go, so as not to congregate in a closed space. To that end, the city eventually removed all chairs from bars, to encourage short stays.

And, on campus, the university held Student Army Training Corps classes outside to keep large groups from gathering indoors.

UM outdoor class

SATC Scrapbook-Archives and Special Collections, Mansfield Library

Second Wave

But when World War I ended on November 11, people all over the world disregarded those rules about congregating in their rush to celebrate. And that helped bring on another wave of flu.

Missoula City-County Health Director Ellen Leahy on the second wave of flu in Missoula, following the end of the war


The Great Influenza: The story of the deadliest pandemic in history by John M. Barry

Quick Facts

Influenza Pandemic

  • Known As: "Spanish Flu" or "Flanders Fever"
  • Lasted from March 1918 to June 1920
  • Global Infection Estimate: 500 million
  • Global Death Estimate: More than 50 million
  • Montana Death Estimate: 5000 or 1% of the population