Influenza (Also called Flu or la Grippe)Influenza has been known to humans since the twelfth century when an epidemic spread through Europe in 1173. The disease wasn't named, however, until the eighteenth century, when scientists in Italy assumed that only some heavenly "influence" could strike down so many people in so many locations at one time. Of course, they had no knowledge then of what caused most illnesses; in fact, in the early 1890s, a German doctor declared that he had identified the bacteria that caused the flu. He was wrong, however, since flu is caused by a virus.
The flu is a respiratory infection (there really is no such thing as the "stomach flu," although we hear people say they have it all the time!). The virus, like the common cold, is spread from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or touching infected objects. In early epidemics in Europe, the flu was mostly just an inconvenience. Seldom did people die from it, and those who did, for the most part, were elderly or already suffering from other ailments. It is only when the influenza virus began mutating into more potent forms, as viruses do, that the disease became fatal to a wider population.
The Pandemic of 1918 (Also called the Spanish Flu)The outbreak after World War I was called the Spanish flu because the Spanish did not censor reporting about the spread of the disease while other countries were keeping it under wraps. However, we know now that the virus did not begin in Spain at all. Wherever it did begin (which is still uncertain), the virus spread quickly and widely because of troop movements at the end of the war. Unlike previous strains of influenza, this one attacked everyone and was most devastating to young people who appeared to be perfectly healthy. Within a year, the disease had reached every country on the planet and affected almost every household in some way. Unlike previous incarnations of flu, this variety was a killer. It often led to bacterial pneumonia (and there were no antibiotics until almost thirty years later) and sometimes, and most horribly, developed a symptom called "heliotrope cyanosis," in which the lungs filled with fluid and the patient died of lack of oxygen, their bodies turning blue or purple before they passed away.
Efforts to prevent the flu from spreading were widespread, but, as we are seeing with today's coronavirus, not effective enough, and, of course, there were no vaccines or adequate medical treatments.
Implications for GenealogistsDid you have relatives who died between 1918 and 1920? Have you looked at the cause of death on their death certificates or in their obituaries? Were they young and in good health but died suddenly? It is very likely that your family was affected by the great pandemic. Look for death by pneumonia, death by "la Grippe," or other respiratory infections as clues that your relative was a victim of this disease. Here are two examples. As you can see, influenza in both cases led to respiratory infections. Homer, age 36, died of pneumonia just nine days after contracting the flu, and Mary, age 66, died of bronchitis six weeks after she was taken ill.
Want to read more about the 1918 pandemic? The Center for Disease Control's website has an excellent history of the spread of the disease, including a timeline. The Smithsonian Magazine's website also has a good article. And don't forget, it's still not too late to get a flu shot, if you haven't already done so!