LC in History: Influenza Development

Dr Clifton W. Porter ~ LC History Professor

Last week, my wife and I did something we have never done, we cancelled all of our classes—except two on Monday—because we had the flu. Luckily we had received the vaccine last October, so we had the milder strain that is making the rounds. That was bad enough.

A good friend of mine who is a retired physician wrote on Sunday that the current influenza outbreak has reached pandemic level. Being a historian, I could not resist the temptation to turn back the clock almost a century.

In the spring of 1918, a new strain of the influenza virus made its appearance. The equipment available to the scientific community was not sophisticated enough for a definitive identification of the mutations that occurred to the “old” strain that had returned each year since the early 1890s.

There were so many cases of this new strain in Spain that it was often called the “Spanish Influenza” in the popular press. During the summer, another mutation occurred in the virus, and when flu season returned, it was obvious that a deadly strain was spreading rapidly through the country and then the world. What had happened to cause this transformation?

The following theory is one that may well be an accurate account of the events that occurred. “Ground zero” may well have been rural Iowa.

In the late spring, a farmer with a mild case of the flu infected the pigs in his sty—cases of swine flu were not regularly recorded by veterinarians until the 1920s. Shortly thereafter, birds migrating north left droppings in the sty which the pigs aspirated. The avian and human viruses mutated producing the “killer flu.”

The farmer’s son who was on leave from the United States Navy caught the influenza from one of the pigs shortly before he returned to Boston to rejoin his ship. The first cases of the deadly strain appeared in that city among naval personnel.

It spread quickly, and as the death toll rose, people began to panic. Some even believed that German agents had put the microbes into Bayer aspirins or dumped them into the municipal water supply.

In previous outbreaks of the influenza, the majority of deaths were recorded among children and the elderly, but in 1918, most victims were in the prime of life and in excellent physical condition.

Why? It is believed that the virus “fed” upon an enzyme produced by both men and women between the ages of 15 and 35. Those who survived the flu were so weakened by the ordeal that they often succumbed to pneumonia.

Service personnel headed for the war zone carried this new strain of influenza with them to Europe, and the effects were catastrophic.  It may actually have helped to shorten the war.

As Lynchburg’s colleges began the 1918-1919 session, the first cases of the influenza appeared in the Hill City.

Unlike the leaders of many communities, those in charge of Lynchburg’s government and the health department never tried to hide the truth from its citizens.

The response of Virginia Christian College to the pandemic was sensible and effective. Since we were self-sufficient in terms of foodstuffs, the campus was “sealed-off” from the rest of community until the emergency ended in early November.

There were a few cases on campus, but there were no deaths among the members of the college family.


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