The Flu Pandemic 1918-1919: Ten Points

By the end of the the First World War the world was in the grip of the Flu pandemic that was to claim millions of lives. Hornsey was no exception and suffered hundreds of losses.

• The epidemic caused an estimated global 50 to 100 million casualties, far greater numbers than those caused by the war.

• It was known as Spanish Flu. There was much publicity when King Alfonso Xlll of neutral Spain succumbed to it, but it did not originate there. Precisely where and when it began is unknown.

• Influenza is caused by an airborne virus passed in microscopic droplets between people by coughing or sneezing. Scientists were aware of bacteria in 1919, but viruses were not properly identified until the invention of the electron microscope in 1938.

• After starting in Europe and the USA, the epidemic spread worldwide.17 million are claimed to have died in India and the illness was rampant in Africa and Asia. Of the Americans who died in the First World War, four out of 10 deaths are estimated to have been caused by Spanish Flu.

• In this particular strain of virus, the patient produced large quantities of pus from their bronchi, preventing the absorption of oxygen through the lungs. Lack of oxygen turned their skin dark blue with a characteristic ‘heliotrope cyanosis.’ Death followed soon after this appeared – the patient literally drowned in their own secretions.

• The first peak of influenza deaths in Britain occurred in late spring 1918. Local reports suggest that it did not make an impact in Hornsey until October when the Medical Officer of Health, Dr Harold Coates, reported to Hornsey Council that in the five weeks ending 9th November 140 of the 202 deaths were from influenza and pneumonia.

• Things seemed to quieten in Hornsey until the end of February 1919 when the Hornsey Journal reported 30 deaths including the deaths of Mr & Mrs Edward Tubbs.

• The flu epidemic was only one of many critical issues to occupy Hornsey minds after the war and it seems to have been stoically received by all but the affected families.

• In Hornsey, as in the rest of the country, deaths were mostly children and adults between the ages 25 – 35.

• Overall, 552 died of influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia in Hornsey in 1918 and 230 in 1919.

For a full account of Hornsey and The Flu Pandemic read the article by Dr Eleri Rowlands in the newly published HHS Bulletin 60.