A view from Dave Trott: The Kansas flu
A view from Dave Trott

The Kansas flu

The worst pandemic in all history was easily the Spanish flu.

It began in 1918, near the end of the First World War.

It came in three waves and, by the end of the third wave, killed more people than died in the entire war – up to 50 million dead.

Of course, there are still a lot of things we don’t know about the Spanish flu, but we do know one thing.

The name is wrong – Spanish flu didn’t start in Spain.

So if it isn’t Spanish, why is it called the Spanish flu?

The reason is that during the war Spain was neutral, so unlike all the other countries Spanish papers were free to print all the news.

The countries that were fighting didn’t want people panicked, so they kept it quiet.

Given that all the news about it came from Spain, it became known as the Spanish flu.

It seems the flu actually started several thousand miles away, in Haskell County, Kansas.

It was a small farming community and a country doctor reported a sudden alarming number of cases of deadly flu.

But America had just entered the war, and young men from those farms joined the army and reported to Fort Riley.

They took the flu with them, and the first reported case was Private Albert Gitchell.

The same day there were a hundred more cases, and in a few days there were 50 dead.

But there were 54,000 young soldiers ready to be shipped to Europe to fight.

President Woodrow Wilson was advised the men shouldn’t be crammed together on troop ships – it would spread the flu among everyone on board.

But Wilson had promised to send the soldiers that Britain and France badly needed.

He couldn’t pause the war because a few men might die of flu, so he ordered the transports to go ahead.

In March, 84,000 soldiers boarded troopships; in April, another 118,000.

Where they landed they spread the flu; by June, there were 31,000 cases in Britain.

Soldiers took the flu to Brest in France, then to the front line in Belgium, even Germany.

Soon it spread to Russia, North Africa, India, China, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand.

When the soldiers returned to America they took it with them – this was the second wave.

Philadelphia was planning a War Bonds parade.

Public health director Wilmer Krusen was advised to call it off, but he refused.

His advice to the public was: "Stay warm, keep your feet dry and your bowels open."

A quarter of a million people showed up to watch the parade.

Seventy-two hours later, Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals were overflowing; a week later, 2,600 were dead.

Then it quickly spread across the entire US.

By the time it was over, 675,000 Americans were dead.

According to the Department of Defense, that’s more than died in World War One, World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, all combined.

One hundred years later, medical science still doesn’t know everything about the Spanish flu.

The one thing they do know is it didn’t start in Spain.

So why does it still have that name?

Well, once you get something into the public’s mind, it’s near impossible to shift it.

It becomes part of their mental Rolodex.

A simple hook to differentiate it from everything else in its category (in this case flu).

No-one cares if it’s true, it’s just a convenience, just shorthand.

If we could learn how trivial things like brands are to ordinary people (not advertising-people but people-people), we would be much better at our jobs.

Because we’d understand our media better.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three