1918 Influenza Pandemic

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic, often referred to as the “Spanish Flu”, lasted from about January 1918 to December 1920. Worldwide, the flu affected about 500 million people, which at the time was about 25% of the world’s population. The death toll was estimated to be 17 million to 50 million, with about 500-700 thousand of those being in the United States.

Interestingly, 99% of the pandemic deaths in the U.S. occurred in people under 65, and nearly half of the deaths were in young adults 20 to 40 years old. This pattern is unusual since influenza is typically most deadly to weak individuals, such as young children and adults over 70. One theory for this unusual mortality pattern is that adults classified as “older” in 1918, were younger adults 30 years before, and might have gained some immunity created by their exposure to an 1889-1890 pandemic known as “Russian flu.”

We are not aware of any direct connection between the 1918 flu pandemic and the deaths of the three te Selle immigrant brothers, but the timing is somewhat coincidental. Harmen Jan te Selle died in June 1919, Jan Hendrik in March 1921, and Gerrit Jan also in 1921. Perhaps more likely to be connected directly to the flu pandemic was the death of Gerrit Jan’s daughter, Willemina “Minnie” TeSelle Heitbrink in February 1919, at the age of 47.

As I write this, the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic in the United States is still unfolding. There are some disturbing similarities between the 1918 and the 2020 pandemics. These similarities, which are described in detail in the attached December 1918 article from the Lincoln Journal Star (Lincoln, NE), can be summarized as follows:

  • No available cure or vaccine;
  • Confusion among medical professionals about possible causes and cures;
  • Disagreement among government officials about the best course of action to control and contain the virus;
  • Delayed action and implementation caused by confusion and disagreements.

In spite of the advances in science and medicine during the past 100 years, the “century of progress” since 1918 has not had much impact on the ability of the United States to deal effectively with health pandemics. The lessons that might have been learned a century ago about effective containment and control of the pandemic seem to have been forgotten. Perhaps we will do better next time.