In mid-January 1918, the ailments of most patients were well-known to Dr. Loring Miner, a physician in an agricultural and pig farming area of the country known as Haskell County, Kansas. The world was at war, but, aside from the thousands of Midwestern recruits, local army personnel, and British and French training officers — who were coming and going from Camp Funston, located 300 miles to the northeast — southwestern Kansas was otherwise at peace. By the end of the month, however, people started falling ill.
An epidemic of influenza spread throughout Haskell County, striking down the strongest and healthiest members of the community – some of whom died as pneumonia set in. Not wanting to hurt morale in a time of war, the local newspaper, the Santa Fe (Kansas) Monitor, buried reports of the deaths on its inside pages. More county residents died, but then, as quickly as it started, the local epidemic came to an end.
And yet this was no ordinary flu, Miner noted. It was something much deadlier, and he said as much in a warning published in an April edition of U.S. Public Health Service’s weekly Public Health Reports. But Miner’s warning came too late.
Between Feb. 24 and March 2, Haskell County residents continued to travel to and from Camp Funston, both to report for duty and to visit friends and family stationed there. On March 4, one of the first cases of influenza was reported in one of the camp’s soldiers, company cook Albert Gitchell – of Haskell County. (Note: While Gitchell has in many cases been referred to as “patient zero,” Army records indicate other men in the unit were reporting similar symptoms within minutes of Gitchell, so his patient zero status has been disputed.)
Within three weeks, 1,100 of the camp’s 56,222 troops were so ill they required hospitalization, with thousands of others reporting for treatment at the base’s infirmaries.
Unfortunately, the camp was not placed on lockdown. In addition to soldiers moving continuously between Funston and Army bases elsewhere, British and French officers were rotated in and out of the camp to train US recruits for the European fronts.
By the end of April, there were outbreaks of flu in 24 of the country’s 36 main Army camps, and in 30 of the largest 50 cities in the U.S. At the same time, influenza outbreaks were reported in France — first in Brest, the largest port town from which American soldiers disembarked to join World War I.
From there, the virus spread across the globe over the early summer.
Even after reaching the furthest parts of the world, the virus didn’t rest. Rather, in the conditions of the war, the virus mutated, and a much deadlier second wave spread throughout the world between August and November, claiming many who had survived it the first time around.
When it was all said and done, the virus had killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
Wartime censorship kept most countries from reporting on the spread of the disease and its toll on their own populations.
The notable exception, Spain, remained neutral during the war and had no reason to censor itself. This imbalance in reporting statistics created the impression that Spain was hit exceptionally hard by the virus, which earned the pandemic its lasting name: the Spanish Flu. However, some researchers point out that Spain reported its first outbreak in early February, prior to the Camp Funston outbreak, and they called it the “French flu,” attributing the virus to the large influx of French officers and tourists in the resort town of San Sebastian.
The origins of the Spanish Flu have been debated for a century now, with some theories suggesting it came from the densely populated areas of Europe or China.
Research by historian John M. Barry, though, suggests that one of the deadliest epidemics in human history sprang out of an area that is, relatively speaking, the middle of nowhere, just east of the Colorado border.
In the eventual wake of COVID-19, it may be worth checking out the monument at Fort Riley (Camp Funston was dismantled in 1924) as a reminder of the raw power of such tiny microbes and the possibility that the next big pandemic may already be brewing in our own backyard.