1918: A severe influenza emerges in Kansas

Sepia Saturday 541. Twelfth in a series about Albert Barney Charboneau — my paternal grandfather’s brother who died in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

In early 1918 — around the time my dad’s Uncle Albert Barney Charboneau registered for the WWI draft in Dolgeville, Herkimer Co., N.Y. — a severe influenza took hold in Haskell County, Kansas, just west of Dodge City.

Albert Barney Charboneau circa 1910. Scan by Molly Charboneau

I doubt that Uncle Albert or any of the Charboneau family were aware of this development. Yet the Haskell County cases appear to mark the emergence of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

In his book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History1 author John M. Barry sums up the influenza’s spread.

Epidemiological evidence suggests that that a new influenza virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas, early in early 1918. Evidence further suggests that this virus traveled east across the state to a huge army base, and from there to Europe. Later it began its sweep through North America, through Europe, through South America, through Asia and Africa, through isolated islands in the Pacific, through all the wide world. In its wake followed a keening sound that rose from the throats of mourners like the wind. The evidence comes from Dr. Loring Miner.2

U.S. Army/Wikipedia/Public Domain
Sick ward at Camp Funston, Ft. Riley, Kansas (1918). According to John M. Barry in The Great Influenza, recruits from Haskell County,  where a severe influenza emerged in 1918, routinely trained at Camp Funston — 300 miles to the east — and a particularly hard winter meant the soldiers were often huddled together for warmth. Within weeks of the first March 4 case more than 1,100 soldiers were ill in hospital and thousands more required infirmary treatment. Photo: U.S. Army/Wikipedia/Public Domain

A Kansas doctor warns the world

According to Barry, Haskell County physician Dr. Loring Miner became alarmed when patients began showing up in early 1918 with a particularly severe influenza that was “violent, rapid in its progress through the body, and sometimes lethal” — and in such numbers that they soon overwhelmed his small practice.3

By mid-March when civilian cases subsided, Dr. Miner remained concerned and alerted national public health officials. His warning appeared in the weekly journal Public Health Reports, which circulated in the U.S. and abroad — the first mention of the deadly influenza that would sweep the globe.4

The influenza spreads to Camp Funston

Troop tents at Camp Funston, Ft. Riley, Kansas (1918). According to author John M. Barry, “Epidemiological evidence suggests that that a new influenza virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas, in early 1918. Evidence further suggests that this virus traveled east across the state to a huge army base, and from there to Europe.” Photo: USNA

Meanwhile — about 300 miles east of Haskell County, Kansas — Camp Funston in Ft. Riley housed some 50,000 new military troops in overcrowded barracks and tents that had been hastily thrown together in 1917.5

Recruits from Haskell County routinely trained at Camp Funston –and a particularly hard winter meant the soldiers were often huddled together for warmth.6

So after a cook at Camp Funston fell ill with influenza on March 4, 1918, within weeks more than 1,100 soldiers were sick in hospital and thousands more required infirmary treatment — primarily with a milder strain of the Haskell influenza, but one that could mutate to a deadlier version.7

Panorama of Camp Funston, Ft. Riley, Kansas (1917).  Photo: Library of Congress

From there, the virus began its march with WWI troops to other bases across the U.S., to the front in Europe, then around the world —  mutating as it went — in a spreading pattern similar to that of the coronavirus, which we are all too familiar with.

Then a second wave of the influenza returned to the U.S. in its deadlier form in the fall of 1918 — which is when it caught up with Uncle Albert.

Up next: The spread of the deadly 1918 influenza — around the world and back to Dolgeville. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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6 thoughts on “1918: A severe influenza emerges in Kansas”

  1. I read Barry’s book a few years ago and was horrified at how many more people perished from this influenza than were killed in the war. Of course it was the war which created conditions for the rapid spread of the pandemic and it’s transmission to so many foreign lands. Our current crisis is a terrible test too, but consider how people dealt with disease 100 years ago. Local quarantining was common for outbreaks of measles and diphtheria, and medical authorities knew how to control tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria. I think many communities responded with better efforts in 1918 than in 2020.

  2. Interesting as I am also researching information on the death of my grandfather’s cousin during the 1918 flu pandemic. My great grandmother’s niece also died of influenza in Kansas in 1918. It has been interesting that more family stories about the flu have not emerged from my family. I’ve had to dig them up!

  3. Right now we’re going through the first wave of corona virus 19. Doctors and medical experts have been warning of a second, stronger wave. Unfortunately some influential people in the higher echelons of our government are not paying any mind to the idea of a second wave, telling us we’re going to be through with the virus by the end of the year which is absolutely not true and a dangerous thing to be saying. I can only hope most of us are intelligent enough to know the real truth of the matter and continue to follow all the safety measures currently in place as recommended by those who know best.

    1. I am with you on that. Now that we are six months into this pandemic, it’s clear that the areas where people are most compliant with safety measures have the least spread. In my neighborhood in NYC, located near the March-April epicenter of C19, mask wearing and social distancing are now routine and our transmission rate remains low, which is certainly a relief after those scary early months.

    1. It’s excellent and also includes profiles of the leading physicians, pathologists and other scientists who tackled the 1918 influenza — some of whom continue to study it today.

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