A brief history of influenza


In October 1918, Cpl. Harry MacKerell and his comrades in the 314th Infantry Regiment crouched down in their trenches awaiting the order to attack the spike-helmeted troops of the Kaiser awaiting across no-man’s land. 


Each man said his prayers. They knew that they would encounter fierce resistance and that many of them would not return. What they did not know, what they could not know, was that World War I was less than a month from ending.  


Up and down the line, other Americans made similar preparations. Col. Douglas MacArthur readied the men of the 42nd Rainbow Division, the first to set foot in France.  Lt. Col. George S. Patton prepared to lead his tanks forward. He would literally lead them on foot into the battle where he would be wounded. Behind the lines, Capt. Harry S. Truman prepared his battery of heavy artillery. That battery would drive back a German counterattack. 


The battle of the Meuse-Argonne was the deadliest American campaign up to that time and the second deadliest in U.S. history. Twenty-thousand American soldiers would die before the battle ended and it would only end with the Armistice that would end the War on November 11, 1918.  


World War I was one of the bloodiest wars of all time and the combatants faced hardships beyond the imagination. Twenty million lost their lives.


But what they did not know and could not know as it drew to an end, was that a far deadlier menace was stalking them and every other person on Earth.


Sometime in 1917, what came to be called the Spanish flu began to ravage the World. This strain of Influenza was misnamed.  It did not come from Spain.  At the time, experts felt it originated in France or Boston or Haskell County, Kansas.


Today, most experts agree that it started in China and was initially transmitted from a bird to a pig.  Sound familiar? The deadliest influenza pandemic of all time raged across the globe for three years, from 1917 into 1920. 


Death tolls were difficult to calculate at the time and estimates range from 17 to 100 million people, with most of those estimates centered around 40 to 50 million. 


In other words, the flu that soldiers carried home with them to every country in the world killed more people than the war itself. 


This Influenza outbreak was particularly harsh on indigenous populations, wiping out a quarter of the population of Samoa and entire Inuit villages in Canada and Alaska. So many died in the U.S. that life-expectancy was cut by 12 years. The death total in the United States was 675,000, about 6% of the total population. Globally, the Spanish Flu pandemic was the worst of all time and infected over half a billion people, or one-third of the world’s population.


Since then there have been other influenza outbreaks—swine flu, avian flu, Asian flu, Hong Kong flu, and Russian flu. None of those were as brutal as the one that spawned in the trenches of Europe. 


Today we are faced with a new flu threat, the coronavirus.  I just read a poll that said that over 39% of beer drinkers had stopped drinking Corona beer for fear of catching the virus, which is nuts! (You cannot get the Coronavirus from drinking Corona or any other beer.  Unless, of course, you are sharing that beer with someone already infected.)


As I write this, the stock market has tumbled on fear of the virus. 


My reading of history says that the fear is probably likely greater than the reality and I urge you not to allow yourself to be ruled by fear.  


Oh, and in case you are wondering, Harry MacKerell is my grandfather’s older brother. He survived the war and the virus. He came home to Philadelphia and together, he and my grandfather, Alexander, founded a very successful reinsurance business. 


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