Mark Humphries: China epicenter of 1918 flu epidemic, not U.S.

Historians in the News
tags: research, Spanish flu, 1918

It was a cruel coda to an atrocious war. Just as the guns fell silent at the close of World War I in the fall of 1918, the dying only accelerated as a deadly pestilence raged across the globe. The “Spanish flu” would ultimately claim 50 million lives—three percent of the world’s population—before it dissipated in 1920. The global influenza pandemic was three times deadlier than World War I, and according to new research by a Canadian historian, the timing between the dual global catastrophes was no coincidence.

For most of the past century, scientists and medical researchers have hotly debated the origins of the 1918 influenza outbreak. Although the pandemic had been dubbed the “Spanish flu,” it only appeared to hit harder in neutral Spain because the country was free from wartime newspaper censors such as those in the United States, France and the United Kingdom who minimized reports of the influenza outbreak in order to prevent potential panic. While some researchers have pointed to a military camp in Kansas or the front-line trenches in France as the breeding ground for the disease, a Canadian historian believes he has discovered evidence to support those who theorized that the “Spanish flu” actually started a world away in China.

According to a new article published in the January 2014 issue of the journal War in History, historian Mark Humphries of Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland points to newly unearthed records to make the case that the lethal influenza pandemic first appeared in China in 1917 and then exploded across the globe “as previously isolated populations came into contact with one another on the battlefields of Europe.”...

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