Coronavirus compared to Spanish flu

by Murrel Bland

More than 100 years ago, in the fall of 1918, Kansas and Wyandotte County, along with the rest of the world, faced a severe challenge because of the Spanish Influenza.

Front page stories in The Kansas City Kansan, told of the pandemic with such headlines as “ALL STATE CLOSED,” “FLU SPREADS FAST” and “A FLU DEATH HERE.”

The present coronavirus pandemic has caused a comparison to the influenza illness in 1918. Many historians who have studied that illness agree that it had its origin in hog pens in Haskell County near Dodge City, Kansas, in early 1918. Young men from southwest Kansas joined the U.S. Army and were sent to Camp Funston which is now Ft. Riley at Junction City, Kansas.

Reports indicated that about 500 soldiers had the flu in early March of 1918 at Camp Funston. Many of these soldiers were sent to Europe to fight in World War I. It didn’t take long for the disease to spread across the globe. By the fall of 1918, the flu made its way back to Kansas.

Dr. Frederick Holmes, a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Kansas, has researched and written about the disease and the larger role of KU professors had in training and assisting in World War I. He was a featured speaker at a quarterly meeting of the Wyandotte County Historical Society marking the centennial of the end of World War I in the fall of 2018.

The University of Kansas at Lawrence was closed during October 1918. A front page story in the University Daily Kansan told students not to go to class, but were forbidden to leave Lawrence. Students suffering from the flu were ordered to report to the University Hospital. The KU varsity football schedule was cut from eight to four games.

A review of records of the Kansas State Board of Health from 1918 indicated that 2,639 died of influenza. Of those, 298 were from Wyandotte County. Estimates are that more than 646,000 Americans died of the flu—more than twice the number of United States personnel that were killed or wounded in World War I. As many as 30 million persons may have died of the flu worldwide.

Looking at the numbers from the coronavirus, we see that more than 60,000 deaths in the United States have been recorded so far with more than 226,000 deaths worldwide. As of late April 2020, there have been 55 deaths in Wyandotte County, mostly in nursing homes.

The fact that it was called the “Spanish flu” was a misnomer. During World War I, Spain was neutral and therefore was not subject to censorship. It could report all the gory details of war. Its ruler, King Alfonso XIII, was afflicted with the flu. Some people in Spain refer to it as the “French flu.”

Information for this article was taken from and the files of The Wyandotte County Museum and the Kansas State Historical Society.

Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is editor of History News.