Troop Ship Tahiti in Wellington Harbor, circa 1918-19 Unknown Photographer
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.
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.
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.
- We Heard the Bells
Watch this film and explore the personal experiences of a diverse group of Americans during the 1918 flu pandemic.
- The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918–1919
Learn how the 1918 pandemic affected life in 1918 and the nation’s health care system. See historical artifacts from the pandemic, including ads, newspapers, and photographs. Read stories and anecdotes of the impact of the Great Pandemic in individual states.
- Pandemic Influenza Storybook
Read personal recollections of the 1918 and 1957 flu pandemics.
- The Deadly Virus: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918View the National Archives and Records Administration’s documents and photos from the 1918 flu pandemic.
- Toxic Traces: What Made the 1918 Influenza Virus So Deadly?
Read how National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease-supported researchers are looking to the 1918 flu pandemic for ways to fight future pandemics.
- Pandemic Influenza––Past, Present, Future: Communicating Today Based on the Lessons from the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic (PDF – 1.72 MB)
Learn how the 1918 pandemic affected daily life in the United States and which lessons can be used to prepare for pandemics today.
- The American Experience: Influenza 1918 (Public Broadcasting Service)
Watch PBS’s documentary on "the worst epidemic in American history."
- Influenza of 1918 (Spanish Flu) and the US Navy
Read about the Navy medical professionals who fought the 1918 flu pandemic in stories collected by the Navy Department Library.