Monday, October 08, 2012

Diary From The HMNZ Tahiti During The 1918 Pandemic


Troop Ship Tahiti in Wellington Harbor, circa 1918-19  Unknown Photographer


# 6617


For years historians, epidemiologists, and virologists have been attempting to peel back the cobwebs of time in order to analyze the deadliest pandemic in human history; the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic.


John Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History, has probably done more to reawaken memories of that awful time than any other source, but many gaps in our knowledge remain.


Jeffrey  K. Taubenberger and David Morens - both researchers at NIAID – have added considerably to our understanding of the H1N1 virus and the events surrounding its emergence. Taubenberger was the first to sequence the the genome of the 1918 Spanish Flu virus while David Morens is a prominent medical historian.


See Morens & Taubenberger on Influenza’s History for a fascinating look back at influenza through the ages. Highly recommended.


Spanish Flu broke out in the spring and summer of 1918, while WWI was still underway. It so devastated troops on both sides of the conflict that historians believed it helped to hasten the end of the war.


Soldiers and sailors – living in cramped and often unhygienic quarters – bore the early brunt of the pandemic, while troop trains and ships helped to spread it around the globe.


While there are many horrific accounts from the pandemic – including some small villages in Alaska entirely wiped out – some of the best documented events occurred onboard troop ships. 


One of the most famous was the HMNZ Troop Carrier Tahiti, which during August-September of 1918 carried 1217 troops and crew (almost double what the ship was rated to carry) from New Zealand to Plymouth, England with provisioning stops at Cape Town and Sierra Leone. 


Since fever was reported in Sierra Leone, no crew or passengers reportedly went ashore , but locals came aboard to coal the ship.  Within a few days of leaving port, half the men on the ship were sick, and in a matter of days, more than 80 would perish.


The University of Otago has an well done 1-page synopsis of the investigation, which you can access here.




The detailed report, on which this exhibit is based, appeared in the CDC’s EID Journal in December of 2010.

Historical Review

Mortality Risk Factors for Pandemic Influenza on New Zealand Troop Ship, 1918

Jennifer A. SummersComments to Author , Nick Wilson, Michael G. Baker, and G. Dennis Shanks



Adding another dimension to this story, Jennifer A. Summers returns to the October, 2012 edition of the EID Journal with excerpts from a recently uncovered diary, kept by one of the troops aboard that ship.



Pandemic Influenza Outbreak on Troop Ship—Diary of a Soldier in 1918

Jennifer A. Summers

A newly identified diary from a soldier in 1918 describes aspects of a troop ship outbreak of pandemic influenza. This diary is the only known document that describes this outbreak and provides information not officially documented concerning possible risk factors such as overcrowding and the suboptimal outbreak response by military leaders. It also presents an independent personal perspective of this overwhelming experience.

(Continue . . . )


The diary entries make fascinating reading, as does the commentary provided by the author. Well worth following the link and to read in its entirety.


For more on the history and impact of the 1918 Spanish flu, you may wish to pay a visit to’s Pandemic history page, with offerings such as:


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the 1970s, I talked with some who had been children in the time of the Spanish flu, and they all had pretty deep mental blocks about it. After the flu, it was a forbidden topic of conversation, as everyone had suffered, and the dead often became non-persons, remembered only in family Bibles.

One man had a particularly bad memory. His family’s house was on the route to the cemetery. Being kept inside for much of six months, from his second story window, he watched the coffins go by. Particularly troubling was the small coffins of children, making him wonder which of his peers had died.

Importantly, because epidemics were very common, doctors carried quarantine signs in their bags. Families of means had a special small room as a “sick room”, so sick family members could be isolated. Such a room generally had an outside door, so things could be taken in our out without flooding the house with bad air.

Only recently it has been established that open windows are superior to even filtered a/c, because they cycle out the bad air faster, reducing airborne contamination inside.

Physicians of the time used phenols and carbolic soap as effective antibiotics.

Importantly, at the time of the Spanish flu, viruses were known to exist, but only as infectious organisms too small to be seen by a microscope. Bacteriophage viruses, viruses that attack bacteria, were also known to exist. Filters too small for bacteria had been developed, as well as a means to calculate viral concentration.

One of the worst problems of the time was the extensive public ignorance of good hygiene. This remained the case until the government began an permanent program to educate the public during WWII. During the Spanish flu, the public were desperate for even rumors of what might help.