Freer Sackler Reopened

Ten Famous People Who Survived the 1918 Flu

The notables who recovered from the pandemic included a pioneer of American animation, world-famous artists and two U.S. presidents

The influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 (Library of Congress)

The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 reached just about every continent throughout the globe. It's perhaps better known as the “Spanish Flu,” a moniker given to the virus in part because Spain's press, unshackled by the wartime restrictions laid upon the news media in other countries, robustly reported on its deadly impact. In the United States, for instance, the Sedition Act of 1918, made it a crime to publish any utterance that would interfere with the war effort.  As the virus spread throughout America, the press was initially non-alarmist.

But the death and illness that followed were unmistakable; the pandemic led to more than 50 million deaths worldwide, and 668,364 in the United States alone. It's estimated that another 25 million in the U.S. suffered from the flu but survived.

These famous notables were among those lucky survivors, forever leaving an indelible contribution to their own national identities.

Walt Disney


“The wonderful world of Disney,” was not so magical when Walt was afflicted with the influenza virus. During World War I, at age 17, Walt Disney, in a patriotic gesture, or perhaps more of an escapist adventure with a friend, was eager to serve his nation.  Because his buddy was rejected from service in the Navy, and since they both wanted to share their European escapade together, they joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps in September 1918. Assigned first to a training facility on the south side of Chicago, Disney came down with the flu. He returned home to be nursed back to health by his mother before rejoining the Corps in December.

After Armistice Day (November 11), when Disney finally arrived in France with the Red Cross, he witnessed firsthand the illnesses, suffering, and evidence of the destruction of war. This experienced had matured him significantly, and he was eager to return home.  

Ten years later, Disney co-created the now cultural icon cartoon character, Mickey Mouse.  In an animated appearance in Steamboat Willie, with synchronized music and sound effects, Mickey become an instant hit. Between 1932 and 1968, Walt Disney movies, animated films, and short features won a total 32 Academy Awards. And every year more than 20 million people now visit the Disney theme parks and resorts in Japan, France, China, Hong Kong, California and Florida.

Disney reportedly summed up his views on life, work, creativity, innovation, and imagination, by saying, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly said that David Lloyd George was the head of the Labor Party coalition rather than the Liberal coalition. The piece also said that Teddy Roosevelt was FDR’s fifth cousin; in fact, he was a distant relative and Eleanor’s uncle. Smithsonian regrets the errors.


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