The first recorded case of what would be labeled the Spanish flu came in March 1918 at an Army training facility in Fort Riley, KS. By the time the influenza pandemic came to an end in December 1920, an estimated 500 million people – more than one-quarter of the world’s population at the time – had been infected. The death toll was estimated to be anywhere from 17 to 50 million, with some believing it could actually be as high as 100 million.
This disease did not discriminate. It infected the young and the old, men and women, the healthy and those with underlying health issues. But counted among the pandemic’s survivors are a number of famous people. Among the celebrities who came down with, but survived, the Spanish flu were world leaders such as Woodrow Wilson, Hollywood stars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, and authors Franz Kafka and John Steinbeck.
Walt Disney was just 16 years old when he joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps on September 16, 1918. He chose the Ambulance Corps because he was too young to enlist in any of the armed forces (the minimum age was 17). When his father refused to sign the enlistment papers for the Ambulance Corps, his mother forged his name, and Disney changed the year of his birth to 1900 (he was actually born in 1901).
He was assigned to do his training at Camp Scott in Chicago, but returned home after he came down with the Spanish flu. He and his sister Ruth were nursed back to health by their mother, despite her also contracting the virus. By the time he recovered, his ambulance unit had already shipped out to France.
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The Spanish influenza of 1918-1920 reportedly claimed about 6% of India’s total population. As he admitted to a friend, “All interest in living [had] ceased” for the 48-year-old Mahatma Gandhi after he contracted the virus in 1918 while staying at an ashram in Gujarat.
Although he was too feverish to speak or read, he rejected most of the medical advice given to him, and his recovery was slowed when he developed pneumonia. The newspaper Praja Bandhu criticized Gandhi’s reluctance to listen to the doctors’ advice, stating, “Mr. Gandhi’s life does not belong to him – it belongs to India.”
It’s estimated that more than 600,000 Americans succumbed to the Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920. The White House was not immune from the disease. In the fall of 1918, Woodrow Wilson’s personal secretary, his eldest daughter Margaret, and some members of the Secret Service all fell ill with the virus.
But it was months before the president himself became infected. In April 1919, shortly after arriving in France for the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson came down with a fever and suffered coughing fits. His condition deteriorated quickly – so quickly that his personal physician initially believed the president had been poisoned. Wilson was bedridden for much of the peace talks and reportedly acted quite strangely. In A. Scott Berg’s biography, Wilson, the author wrote that the usually predictable president started issuing odd orders and believed he was surrounded by spies.
In 1918, Franklin Delano Roosevelt held the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In the summer of that year, he traveled to France on a fact-finding mission and to visit the front. In September, he headed back to the US, but developed double pneumonia on the boat trip and had to be taken by ambulance from the USS Leviathan when it docked in New York.
The New York Times described Roosevelt’s illness as a “slight attack of pneumonia” caused by the Spanish flu and reported he had been taken to his mother’s home in New York City, where his recovery was progressing favorably.
In 1918, about one year after Amelia Earhart moved to Toronto to be a volunteer nurse’s assistant, the Spanish flu pandemic hit the Canadian city. As Earhart assisted with influenza patients in her work, it’s unsurprising that she fell victim to the virus herself. She developed pneumonia and her condition became so severe that she had to undergo surgery to drain an infection from her sinus cavity. This illness led to her decision to try to become a doctor; she enrolled at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, but soon changed her mind about pursuing medicine. The operation was not entirely successful, as Earhart suffered from sinus problems for the rest of her life.
In March 1919, Earhart wrote to a friend who had recently recovered from the Spanish flu, admitting, “I hate and fear it [the Spanish flu], somehow more than a little. Having seen so much of it, I suppose, has prejudiced me – with the very uncertainty of treatment adding to the prejudice.”
Franz Kafka spent much of his life worrying about his health. Even before coming down with the Spanish flu, he had spent time in sanitoriums for various ailments. In 1917, he developed the first signs of tuberculosis, an illness he believed was the result of a battle between good and evil within himself.
In October 1918, his health was further damaged when he contracted the Spanish flu. He recovered well enough to return to his job at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia in November, only to suffer a relapse just four days after resuming work. Kafka disliked traditional medicine and its pharmaceutical treatments, but was forced to overcome his suspicions in order to seek help. He was unable to work very much over the following years, as he spent long months in sanatoriums. Even after he recovered from the influenza, his tuberculosis gradually worsened over the next few years until he expired in 1924 at age 40.
Mary Pickford was one of the biggest stars of the silent film era. She was so popular that when she became ill with the Spanish flu in January 1919, the Los Angeles daily newspapers reported on how her recovery was progressing.
The actress was able to make a relatively quick recovery, as Daddy Long Legs, which she wrote, produced, and starred in, was released in May 1919.
Throughout Edvard Munch’s career, much of his artwork showcased his interest in the idea of his own mortality. The artist was in his mid-50s when he was afflicted by the Spanish flu in 1919.
He composed several self-portraits detailing his illness and asked one visitor whether he could “sense the smell” from one called Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu. Realizing the visitor was confused by his question, the artist elaborated by querying, “Can’t you see I’m almost on the point of decomposing?”
Lillian Gish was one of the great actresses of the silent era. She was already feeling ill as she began work on Broken Blossoms in the fall of 1918. On the day of her costume fitting, she decided to walk home, only to collapse with a high fever. Her mother sent a telegram to one of Lillian’s friends that read, “Think she will recover rapidly as we took care of it in time. Have two nurses and doctor in attendance all the time. Her fever has gone down from hundred four to hundred two. If she gets worse will let you know.” When she returned to rehearsals in November, director D.W. Griffith demanded she wear a mask and avoided being around her as much as possible.
A few months after she was fully recovered, Gish tried to joke about her illness, saying, “The only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns – have to wear them all winter – horrible things.”
In the summer of 1917, Raymond Chandler (who was born in Chicago but had become a British citizen in 1907) resigned his position of bookkeeper at the Los Angeles Creamery and went to Canada, where he volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Toward the end of that year, he sailed to England, where he joined the 7th Battalion, Canadian Base Depot.
After serving in France, Chandler returned to England in June 1918 to try and join the Royal Air Force. While training with the RAF, he twice contracted the Spanish flu – the first time in July 1918 and the second in October of the same year. Both times, he was sent to an infirmary in England for treatment and recovered from his illness within a week. He was discharged from the service in February 1919.