Skip main navigation

Military Health System

Clear Your Browser Cache

This website has recently undergone changes. Users finding unexpected concerns may care to clear their browser's cache to ensure a seamless experience.

NMHM looks back at the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ for one Maryland county

Image of Black and white image of hospital beds lined up in rows, occupied by sick people. Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas. (NCP 1603) (Photo by: NMHM.)

The year 1918 proved to be a trying time for people overseas and at home. Still in the midst of World War I, populations were then introduced to another adversary: the “Spanish Flu.” While great medical strides had been made to prevent other deadly diseases, such as smallpox, by the time of the global outbreak of influenza in 1918, the flu virus, or H1N1, had yet to be identified.

The 1918 flu resembled a more severe cold. The symptoms included fever, pains in the head and other body parts, and fatigue. While some patients recovered, others developed more severe and deadly conditions, like pneumonia or meningitis. Perhaps the greatest threat of the 1918 flu was the contagious nature of the virus with approximately one third of the world’s population infected and an estimated 50-100 million global fatalities.

During a virtual “science café” held by the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) last month, NMHM’s Historical Collections Manager Alan Hawk discussed the rapid spread of the 1918 influenza pandemic in a case study on Montgomery County, Maryland.

In 1918, Montgomery County was transitioning from a rural farming community into a suburban area. The county had recently improved its transportation systems connecting railroads and trolley lines to Washington, D.C. for those commuting to work in the city. Less than a month after the first influenza fatality in Washington, D.C., there was an estimated 1,200 cases of influenza in Montgomery County; most cases were within five miles of the railroad or trolley lines.

As we know today, the influenza virus is easily transmitted between those in close proximity to each other, up to about six feet, making the crowded trolleys and trains a prime place for spreading the flu in 1918. This was particularly damaging to the U.S. military, as traveling military personnel often shared cramped quarters in barracks, trains, and trenches.

The devastating impact of the flu in Montgomery County and the surrounding areas drove public health officials to require the adornment of gauze masks in public, and locals to cancel events with large gatherings of people.

While a vaccine wouldn’t be developed for a few more decades, military laboratories and civilian scientists worked tirelessly in 1918 to discover the agent that caused the flu. Autopsies were performed and samples of lung tissue were forwarded to the Army Medical Museum (now NMHM) for further study and preservation. 

Along with the tissue specimens, the museum collected archival and historical materials – for example, photographs showing influenza wards like Camp Funston, Kansas, a possible ground zero for the virus in America, and medical equipment – to illustrate the devastating impact of the 1918 pandemic and the military’s medical response. 

These materials aid today’s researchers in parsing history and understanding the nature of the 1918 flu in comparison to current strains or other viruses. A virtual exhibit shows how DOD scientists used a sample of lung tissue to recreate the genetic sequence of the 1918 virus, and a new teacher’s guide compares the 1918 influenza to COVID-19. Perhaps future studies can help us identify key characteristics of the 1918 influenza pandemic and why it was so deadly.

For those interested in accessing the collections for research, visit the museum’s website.

You also may be interested in...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 14 No. 1 – April 2007

.PDF | 1.28 MB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Leishmaniasis in relation to service in Iraq/Afghanistan, U.S. Armed Forces, 2001 – 2006; Hospitalizations among members of active components, U.S. Armed Forces, 2006; Ambulatory visits among members of active ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 13 No. 1 - January 2007

.PDF | 311.88 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Relationships between abnormal findings during medical examinations and subsequent diagnoses of significant conditions, active components, U.S. Armed Forces, January 1998-October 2006; ARD surveillance update; ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 14 No. 2 – May 2007

.PDF | 504.24 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Hospitalization Experience within One Year after Returning from Afghanistan or Iraq, January 2002-September 2006; Outbreak of Acute Gastroenteritis Due to Norovirus, Fort Dix, New Jersey, December 2006; Heat ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 14 No. 7 – November 2007

.PDF | 2.89 MB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: "Indicator" infectious illnesses, staphylococcal infections, and penicillin resistance among active component members, U.S. Armed Forces, January 2002-June 2007; Mental health-related clinical experiences in ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 13 No. 2 – February/March 2007

.PDF | 851.77 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: The MSMR: The First 100 Issues and the Future; Relationships between the Timing and Causes of Hospitalizations Before and After Deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan, Active Components, U.S. Armed Forces, 2002-2005 ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 14 No. 6 – September/October 2007

.PDF | 649.71 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Routine screening and referrals for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005, U.S. Armed Forces; Relationship between influenza vaccination and subsequent ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 14 No. 5 – August 2007

.PDF | 635.60 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Traumatic brain injury among members of active components, U.S. Armed Forces, 1997-2006; Heterotopic ossification, active components, U.S. Armed Forces, 2002-2007; Routine screening for antibodies to HIV-1, U.S ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 14 No. 8 – December 2007

.PDF | 2.86 MB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Korea-acquired malaria, U.S. Armed Forces, January 1998-October 2007; Diagnoses of "envenomations" in relation to diagnoses of skin and soft tissue infections due to staphylococci/penicillin resistant bacteria, ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 14 No. 4 – July 2007

.PDF | 583.03 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Mental health encounters and diagnoses following deployment to Iraq and/or Afghanistan, U.S. Armed Forces, 2001-2006; Hormonal contraceptive use among female service members, active components, U.S. Armed ...

Report
Jan 1, 2007

MSMR Vol. 14 No. 3 – June 2007

.PDF | 567.38 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: "Healthy deployers":Nature and Trends of Health Care Utilization during the Year prior to Deployment to OEF/OIF, Active Components, U.S. Armed Forces, January 2002-December 2006; Update:Deployment Health ...

Report
Jan 1, 2006

MSMR Vol. 12 No. 9 – December 2006

.PDF | 361.14 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Body Mass Index (BMI) among 18-year old Civilian Applicants for U.S. Military Service 1996-2005; Carbon Monoxide Poisoning, U.S. Armed Forces, January 1998-September 2006; Incident Abnormal Findings Within 30 ...

Report
Jan 1, 2006

MSMR Vol. 12 No. 6 – August/September 2006

.PDF | 275.01 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Update: Screening for HIV-1 among soldiers in active and Reserve components, U.S. Army, and civilian applicants for military service, January 1990-June 2006; Seroprevalences and incidence rates of HIV-1 in ...

Report
Jan 1, 2006

MSMR Vol. 12 No. 8 – November 2006

.PDF | 276.76 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Medical experiences within six months of redeployment in relation to changes in self-rated health from pre- to post-deployment, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, January 2002-June 2006; First-time episodes ...

Report
Jan 1, 2006

MSMR Vol. 12 No. 2 – March 2006

.PDF | 232.71 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Medical experiences of service members within one year after returning from deployments in central Asia/Middle East, active components, U.S. Armed Forces; Numbers, rates, and patterns of hospital readmissions, ...

Report
Jan 1, 2006

MSMR Vol. 12 No. 3 – April 2006

.PDF | 440.78 KB

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Hospitalizations among active component members, U.S. Armed Forces, 2005 Ambulatory visits among active component members, U.S. Armed Forces, 2005; Numbers, rates, and patterns of hospital readmissions, U.S. ...

Skip subpage navigation
Refine your search
Last Updated: July 11, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on X Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery