14 Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu Pandemic
A century ago this year, a deadly flu pandemic swept the globe. The first cases of the so-called Spanish Flu—named because that’s where the early news reports of the disease originated (later research has put its real origin as anywhere from China to Kansas to France)—are traditionally dated to Kansas in March 1918. The disease ultimately infected some 500 million people, and estimates put the death toll anywhere from 20 to 50 million. The people on this list contracted the Spanish flu and lived to tell the tale.
1. WALT DISNEY
If Walt Disney 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. MARY PICKFORD
The silent film star was at the height of her fame when she fell ill; thankfully, her bout with the flu was uneventful, but as the disease spread, many movie theaters were forced to close. Irritated theater owners in Los Angeles, claiming they had been singled out, petitioned for all other places that people gathered together (except for grocery stores, meat markets, and drug stores) to be forced to close as well.
3. DAVID LLOYD GEORGE
Weeks before the end of World War I, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 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. 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.
4. FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
In 1918, the future president was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had been in Europe for two months before contracting the flu on the boat home. The New York Times described his illness “a slight attack of pneumonia caused by Spanish influenza.” Roosevelt convalesced at his mother’s New York City home until he was well enough to head back to Washington, D.C.
5. WOODROW WILSON
Considering Wilson was President of the United States and he was dealing with the end of WWI, early 1919 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 U.S. troops in Europe alone. Pershing was forced to ask the government for more than 30 mobile hospitals and 1500 nurses in just over a week.
8. 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.
9. 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 (he was supposedly cured by spending time in a humid room, the standard treatment for respiratory illness at the time), 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.
10. KATHERINE ANNE PORTER
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 and dies.
11. ALFONSO XIII
Alfonso was the King of Spain when the “Spanish” flu hit, and he was not immune to its outbreak. The flu was no worse in Spain than anywhere else, but unlike most journalists in other countries—who were under wartime censorship—the Spanish media actually covered the pandemic, leading to an unfair association that persists to this day.
12. 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 a few self-portraits of both his illness and shortly after his recovery.
13. 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 a doctor 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.”
14. CLEMENTINE CHURCHILL
While Winston was in France in 1919, the Churchill household—including his wife Clementine and their nanny Isabelle, who was looking after their young daughter Marigold—contracted the flu. According to Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames, Isabelle grew delirious and took Marigold from her cot. Despite being sick herself, Clementine grabbed the child and was anxious for days about Marigold’s condition. Isabelle died of the flu, but Clementine and Marigold survived (although Marigold would die in 1921).
During World War II, Clementine served as a close adviser to Winston. She was also the “Chairman” of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, which raised 8 million pounds during WWII and resulted in her being awarded the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labor, being made a Dame, and being given a 19th century glass fruit bowl from Stalin. Churchill’s Chief Staff Officer, General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, would later comment that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story.”
A version of this story appeared in 2014.