History's Most Deadly Pandemic in Photographs: 1918/19

History's Most Deadly Pandemic in Photographs: 1918/19

While we hunker down and practice social distancing, it’s important to remember that there are critical reasons to take the spread of this virus seriously. Call it what you will, Influenza, The Spanish Flu, or H1N1, the 1918 Pandemic killed upwards of 100 million people. Can images from this 100-year-old tragedy help contain the spread of COVID-19 today?

Warning: Images from 1918 pandemic containing mass graves and sick individuals to follow

World War One to Influenza

The Daily Mirror, World War I. Public Domain.

Photojournalism and combat photography was still in its infancy throughout the Great War. The action was often too fast for the day's technology to keep up with. The 1918 influenza pandemic should have been different, as its action moved much slower. In contrast to the press coverage of World War One, the pandemic's proximity to the war itself meant that the outbreak didn’t receive the type of media coverage you’d expect.

U.S. soldiers marching towards war in Seattle. Note the masks. December 1918. Public Domain.
In fact, the name of the pandemic, the Spanish Flu, came from the fact that the Central Powers and Allies didn’t want coverage of the sick in case it lowered morale. Both sides of the conflict exercised a great deal of censorship over the reporting of the virus. In contrast, neutral Spain’s press wasn’t censored. Therefore, it seemed all of the coverage initially came from Spain. The newspapers of other nations only picked up the story as the war came to an end. Readers of the day were given the impression that the pandemic started in Spain. 

Notice that despite the rising death toll, the news still focuses on the war. 

St. Paul Pioneer Press, November 4, 1918. Public Domain. 

Influenza and Temporary Triage

Looking through newspapers today and seeing images of the rampaging COVID-19, I can’t help but think of the photographs that I’d seen in my grade 10 history class during the unit about the Spanish Flu.

Unknown source. Public Domain.
Searching through images over a hundred years old, I’m surprised by the wealth of photographic history that exists. I’m not however surprised by how frightening it all looks. 

Oakland Auditorium, Edward A. "Doc" Rogers. Public Domain.
What might be more frightening is how similar the imagery is to what we're seeing today. In particular, there are a number of photos showing the same type of temporary triage locations that are being set up by militaries around the world right now.

Triage in the hallway. Connecticut Historical Society. Public Domain.

Fake News

The amount of images I found that showed just how fast misinformation can spread would be nothing more than a curiosity if they weren't so relevant today. 

Unknown newspaper clipping. Public Domain.
At least the science of 1918 wasn't advanced enough at that moment to know what really worked against the spread of the virus. I still have no idea how FOX News can continue to employ Geraldo Rivera when he shamelessly told people all they had to do to test for SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 was to hold their breath.  

Unknown newspaper clipping. Public Domain.

Social Distancing

U.S. soldiers in Royat, France. National Library of Medicine. Public Domain.
Reflecting on the science, it's interesting to see that social distancing wasn't as well implemented as it should be today. These US soldiers attending a movie screening in France may be wearing masks, but they are sitting shoulder to shoulder. Again, science wasn't as advanced as it is today. There is a big difference between these soldiers and the careless gatherings on Florida beaches and California trails from this past weekend.

Compelling Tragedy?

There is a compelling beauty to photojournalism that captures tragedy. I know this might sound like a death wish, but bear with me a moment. Perhaps it's the other side of the quote about tragedy and statistics:

A single death is a tragedy, a million is just a statistic.

The greatest photojournalists are able to turn unfathomable statistics into a tragedy that can encourage understanding, empathy, and maybe even action. The imagery coming out of the 1918 pandemic is no different.

For example, there is something reassuring about these large figures looking strongly towards the frame, prepared to continue to work to ensure public safety.

Seattle Police Department. U.S. National Archives. Public Domain.

Despite the masses of sick in this photo from Fort Riley, Kansas, each individual in the foreground can be studied individually. It creates a connection, as if we can read each story in the faces of these men. Adding in the ethereal light floating over the rest of the frame makes this image feel like calm hopefulness.

Fort Riley, Kansas. 1918. Maybe where the virus originated.
The way that this image frames the action with spectators on board a US Navy vessel is spectacular. It creates a sense of community that could otherwise be absent in tragedy. I find the image's passing resemblance to Ebbet's Lunch atop a Skyscraper interesting.

U.S. Navy personnel watching a boxing match on board the USS Siboney. U.S. Navy History Center. Public Domain.
The image of these corpsmen at a U.S. Naval base in California uses light, and an almost monochrome white lifts the image to almost angelic hopefulness.

U.S. Navy corpsmen at a U.S. Navy hospital in California, 1918. U.S. Navy History Center. Public Domain.


Warning: The following images include images of mass graves.

Along with the more hopeful images, the 1918 pandemic also produced images of abject terror, images that we may unfortunately become all to familiar with if our communities don't decide to work together.

End of days. Paris, France. Unknown. Public Domain.
The images of members of the public digging mass graves drives home the fears of what might be happening in the next few weeks and months.

Digging mass graves. Unknown. Public Domain.

Do you think that there is anyway that these sobering images can help with the spread of COVID-19?

Image attribution provided where possible. All images in the Public Domain.

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Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I’m worried we’re already there.

Miha Me's picture

Time to gargle 😲

Mark Dunsmuir's picture


Andrew Johnson's picture

Pretty sure the black plague was history's deadliest pandemic not the one mentioned above. Of course they didn't have cameras in the 1300's either.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Depends if you talk naked numbers, as a percentage of the population, what you class as the world at that time, and, last, what time frame you put on each pandemic / outbreak. For example, the plague didn't kill outside of Europe and Eurasia in massive numbers and total numbers for the plague span decades, unlike the Spanish Flu which was a matter of months.

All that to be said, I do agree that the plague was likely more deadly than the Spanish Flu, I just wouldn't put them in the same categories.

Andrew Johnson's picture

That's a fair point, but I'm just purely talking about death toll. Not any other in statistical comparisons.

Andress Kools's picture

Death toll might have been the same, there's no way of accurately telling. Estimates for both overlap at about 100 million.

Rod Kestel's picture

Terrific story, thanks Mark. Terrific but terrible.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks Rod! It's a terrible story to tell, agreed.