Spitting Spreads Spanish Influenza, Don’t Spit

By Skyler Jackim, National Museum of the American Sailor Intern

While flu season is never fun, at least no one is sick with Spanish Influenza this year. A century ago, in the winter of 1918, Spanish Flu became one of the deadliest viruses in human history. 1918’s winter was one of the coldest on record in the Midwest, and its severity partially led to the outbreak of this lethal virus. When all was said and done, over 100 million people were left dead in its wake, almost twice as many as were killed during World War I. Traditionally influenza affected young children and the elderly, but during this outbreak it primarily targeted those in their twenties and thirties. Nationwide panic ensued, and entire cities were quarantined.

NH 41731-A

Influenza precaution sign mounted on a wood storage crib at the Naval Aircraft Factory, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 19, 1918. Naval History and Heritage Command Collection.

Globally, there were three waves of the virus, with the second wave being the most lethal as it had likely mixed with another strain in Europe during World War I. The worst aspect of Spanish Influenza were its symptoms: head and body aches, fevers, and coughs. Eventually the onset of fatal pneumonia left victims with a blue tint due to the lack of oxygen. Thus, the influenza was nicknamed “the blue death.”

Both healthy and ill Sailors from World War I’s front lines transferred to U.S. Naval Training Station, Great Lakes. The rise in the enlisted sailor population that was stationed at the base due to the Great War coupled with the lack of resources to house them, led to cramped ‘tent cities’ that afforded no privacy and helped influenza spread quickly to sailors with no immunity.


Unknowingly, the armed forces created the perfect breeding ground for influenza. After coming in contact with the virus, sailors then used trains to go from Chicago to anywhere in the country, bringing the deadly virus with them from coast to coast.

On September 7, 1918, Spanish Influenza hit the Great Lakes. There was a conservative estimate of 8,400 cases during the first wave alone, with more than 360 new cases in twenty-four hours alone on September 24, 1918. Early in the outbreak, Great Lakes’ commandant, Captain William A. Moffett Sr., reported that the base only had 4,500 cases of influenza out of the 45,000 sailors stationed at Great Lakes, with a death rate of only 1.5%. However, off the base, the Cook County Hospital reported a more probable mortality rate of 39.8% for all influenza cases.

Eventually the Spanish Influenza came and went without anyone being able to even fully understand how it spread with such lethality or even create a vaccine. So, this flu season be thankful Spanish Influenza isn’t making a comeback any time soon!

For more information on influenza and the U.S. Navy check out the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Online Reading Room’s “Influenza” article at https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/i/influenza.html

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