In the last During the hard days of World War I, just two weeks before world powers agreed to an armistice, a doctor wrote a letter to a friend. The doctor was stationed at the U.S. Army’s Camp Devens west of Boston, a base with 45,000 soldiers preparing to be sent to the battlefields of France. A rapidly progressing, fatal case of pneumonia had struck the base, and the ward he oversaw was full of desperately ill men.
“Two hours after admission, they have mahogany spots over the cheekbones, and a few hours later you can see the cyanosis spreading from the ears all over the face,” he says wrote to a colleague. “Then it’s just a matter of a few hours before death comes, and it’s just a fight for air until they suffocate. It’s terrible.”
No one knew what slaughtered the men. In Devens alone, 100 people died every day, and by the time the last military companies were demobilized in 1919, more than 57,000 had emerged the year before in Kansas and traveled to Europe with the first U.S. missions, a devastating second wave that would sweep the world .
The death toll from the “Spanish” flu (which did not occur in Spain but was covered in newspapers there because there was no wartime censorship there) was at least 50 million people. a multiple of the registered deaths of Covid-19. Amid this reckoning, the report on the attacks on Camp Devens always stands out – not only for the fear it embodies, but also for the victims it describes. In medicine, it is believed that outbreaks of infection prefer to kill the very old and the very young, a curve that looks like a U when you plot age and deaths together. But the mortality curve of the 1918 flu was W-shaped, with a median peak among people in their 20s and 40s—young and healthy, as the Devens’ military recruits would have been.
Since then, the 1918 flu has been reported to be a unique killer, affecting all age groups regardless of health status and, mysteriously, being most deadly to people whose immune systems were strongest. Now, however, an analysis of the skeletons of people who died in 1918 shows that the story may not be accurate. Your bones show signs of underlying frailty resulting from other infections or malnutrition. This insight could both rewrite the history of 1918 and influence our planning for future pandemics.
“This leads to a generalizable conclusion that epidemics don’t strike neutrally, a bolt from the blue,” says Andrew Noymer, a demographer and epidemiologist and associate professor at UC Irvine, who was not involved in the work but is familiar with it deals with the interaction between tuberculosis and the 1918 flu. “They strike differently, and people who are worse off at the beginning will be even worse off at the other end.”