14 Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu Pandemic

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With the news filled with sensationalized stories of the current Ebola outbreak, it's important to remember that we've been here before, and that people survive. Here are 14 famous people who contracted the flu in 1918 and lived to tell the tale.

1. Walt Disney

If he hadn’t contracted the flu, we might never have had Mickey Mouse. Even though he was only 16 at the time, Disney lied about his birth year to sign up for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps at the tail end of WWI. Then he got sick. By the time he was ready to ship out, the war was over.

2. Georgia O’Keeffe

The famous painter was just 30 years old when she came down with the flu. Unfortunately, O’Keeffe had to hide her illness from most of her friends, because she was being cared for by a married man 24 years her senior. Once she recovered enough she started inviting friends over, but, still too ill to cook, she asked one of them to bring her own egg for breakfast.

3. Mary Pickford

The silent film star was at the height of her fame when she fell ill. While her bout with the flu was uneventful, the pandemic affected her in other ways. Pickford had two films out at the time, but many movie theaters were forced to close in order to stop the spread of the disease. The irritated owners petitioned for all other places that people gathered together, like grocery stores, to be forced to close as well, claiming they had been unfairly singled out.

4. David Lloyd George

The Prime Minister of Britain came very close to dying of the flu. He was confined to his bed for nine days, had to wear a respirator, and was accompanied by a doctor for over a month. All of this was happening within weeks of the end of WWI. Because it was thought that news of the PM’s illness would hurt the morale of the British people and “encourage the enemy,” his condition was kept mostly hidden from the press.

5. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Who knows how different the world might have turned out if we had lost FDR in 1918? At the time, he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had been in Europe for two months before contracting the flu on the boat home. Despite the disease killing tens of millions worldwide, his case was considered notable enough for its own article in the New York Times.

6. Woodrow Wilson

Considering Wilson was President of the United States and he was dealing with the end of WWI, 1918 was a seriously inconvenient time to get sick. Not only did he get the flu, but he fell ill so violently and so quickly that his doctors were sure he had been poisoned. When Wilson was well enough to rejoin the “Big Three” negotiations a few days later, people commented on how weak and out of it he seemed.

7. Wilhelm II

While the German Kaiser was undoubtedly upset to get sick himself, he had reason to be happy about the flu epidemic, or so he thought. One of his military generals insisted—despite the fact that the surgeon general disagreed—that the illness would decimate the French troops, while leaving the Germans mostly unharmed. Since Germany needed a miracle to win the war, the flu must have seemed like a godsend. In the end, it ravaged all armies pretty much equally, and Germany surrendered.

8. John J. Pershing

While the great American general got sick himself, the flu gave him a much larger problem. His troops were dying at a faster rate from illness than from bullets. Soon there were more than 16,000 cases among US troops in Europe alone. Pershing was forced to ask the government for more than 30 mobile hospitals and 1500 nurses in a single week.

9. Haile Selassie I

The future emperor of Ethiopia was one of the first Africans to contract the disease. His country was woefully unprepared for the epidemic: There were only four doctors in the capital available to treat patients. Selassie survived, but it's unknown how many people the flu killed in Ethiopia; it killed 7 percent of the population of neighboring British Somaliland.

10. Leo Szilard

You may not have heard of him, but the atomic scientist Szilard might have saved the world. While he survived the flu during WWI (thanks to “humidity treatments”), what he should be remembered for is his foresight before WWII. When he and other physicists were discovering different aspects of nuclear fission, he persuaded his colleagues to keep quiet about it, so that the Nazis wouldn’t get any closer to making an atomic bomb.

11. Katherine Anne Porter

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The author turned her experience with sickness in 1918 into a short novel called Pale Horse, Pale Rider. The story is told by a woman with the flu who is tended to by a young soldier. While she recovers, he contracts the disease from her and dies.

12. Alfonso XIII

Alfonso was the King of Spain when the “Spanish” flu hit, and he was not immune to its outbreak. Obviously, his country must have been responsible for the sickness, since it got the unwanted distinction of being part of the illness’ name. Actually, the flu was no worse in Spain than anywhere else. But the Spanish media covered the pandemic, unlike most journalists in other countries, who were under wartime censorship. The result was an unfair association that persists to this day.

13. Edvard Munch

The Scream artist had an apparent obsession with sickness and death long before he came down with the flu, painting many works on the subject. But the flu obviously affected him especially. He painted two different self-portraits, one showing him while he was ill, and one showing him shortly after recovering (above).

14. Lillian Gish

The silent film star started feeling sick during a costume fitting and collapsed with a 104° fever when she got home. Fortunately, she could afford two doctors and two nurses to attend to her around the clock. While she recovered, it wasn’t all good news. Gish complained later, “The only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns—have to wear them all winter—horrible things.”

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August 16, 2014 - 11:00am
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