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 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.
“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.”
Today, the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, is probably best known for his 1893 portrait, Der Schrei der Nature (The Scream of Nature), more popularly known as The Scream. On the top of one of the four versions of this work, now located in Oslo’s National Gallery, Munch wrote “Can only have been painted by a madman.” Art historians view this painting as autobiographical, as the screamer is abandoned by his two companions in the background. And certainly, Munch struggled to come to terms with the mental illness of his sister.
So, it is would come as no shock that after he was afflicted in 1918, he captured the agony of his own illness in his Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu. This painting is one of many of his self-portraits. However, in this one, Munch’s face is quite pale and he is frail, as he sits heavily wrapped in his dressing gown. Reflective of his earlier work, his mouth is wide open, as he conveys the torturous state of his sickly condition. Munch recovered and lived a long life as a prolific painter and printmaker, dying at age 80 in 1944.
Katherine Anne Porter
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Katherine Anne Porter mostly wrote short stories, and her first and only novel was Ship of Fools, published in 1962. While working in Denver as a journalist in 1918, she also was a victim of the epidemic.
Already quite sickly with bronchitis, first misdiagnosed, her illness was reflected in her 1938 dramatic fictional treatment of the pandemic, in her short novel, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider." The work is largely autobiographical. The character Miranda, a journalist, is in a relationship with Adam, a solider. She becomes quite sick and delirious from influenza. Adam cares for her, and when she recovers, Miranda discovers that her love of life has died from the disease.
The fictional character Miranda laments and feels miserable upon her recovery from her illness. Porter writes of Miranda that “[I]n her extremity of grief for which she had so briefly won, she folded her body together and wept silently, shamelessly, in pity for herself and her lost rapture. There was no escape.” As a result of her actual illness, Porter’s hair turned forever grey.
David Lloyd George
In September 1918, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom encountered the influenza pandemic in Manchester, England, the city of his birth. He survived, and was widely hailed as the man who won the war. In that year, the Liberal coalition which he headed obtained a large majority in Parliament, in an election where women were allowed to vote for the first time.
George was regarded as one of the early 20th century’s most famous radicals, as he openly declared a war on poverty in England. Before serving as Prime Minister, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he was responsible for instituting many social reforms, including the introduction of state pensions.
The United Kingdom market research firm, Ipsos MORI, surveying academicians, consistently list George among the top three Prime Ministers, along with Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee.
There is long history of physicians hiding U.S. presidents’ illnesses from the public. The health of Woodrow Wilson was no exception. The widely accepted view is that after his stroke, Wilson’s second wife, Edith, was “acting” as the president as her husband was hidden both from the public and political officials.
But before the stroke that eventually led to his demise, Woodrow was stricken with influenza while attending the Versailles Peace Conference in March and April of 1919. He seemed confused at times during the meetings, and he told his physician, Admiral Cary T. Grayson, “I am feeling terribly bad.” One evening, Wilson found it quite difficult to breathe, and his temperature rose to 103 degrees. Although his doctor informed the president he was suffering from the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, Grayson misinformed the press, and instead announced that Wilson had a “cold.”
By the fall of 1919, Wilson’s health began to deteriorate while he was on a nationwide train trip to make speeches in an attempt to save his dream of the League of Nations, the failed predecessor to the United Nations, an organization designed to deter future warfare. He would die five years later, but his debilitating massive stoke of October 2, 1919 was hidden from the public.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Polio was not the only health crisis that afflicted this future president of the United States. Toward the end of World War I, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR traveled to France. This was done at the encouragement of his distant relative, former President Theodore Roosevelt (Eleanor's uncle), for the purpose of engaging in meetings with French officials, and visiting the “front-line” of the troops.
On his return voyage on the USS Leviathan, many onboard were sickened with the influenza pandemic, and several died on the trip. FDR, not only was stricken with the flu, but he also developed a case of double pneumonia. He was so sick that when the ship docked in the United States, he was too weak to walk unaided, and instead was carried off on a stretcher.
While FDR was convalescing, Teddy Roosevelt wrote him a note saying, “We are deeply concerned about your sickness, and trust you will soon be well. We are very proud of you. With love, Aff. Yours Theodore Roosevelt.” It was the “Great War” that brought these two relatives of different political parties and philosophies closer together.
General John J. Pershing
More than half the U.S. military casualties in World War I were not from combat, but instead from the influenza pandemic. According to the War Department’s records, between September and November of 1918, about 20 to 40 percent of the U.S. Army and Navy personnel were afflicted with the flu and pneumonia. In total, more than one million men were sickened and about 30,000 died even before they arrived in France. U.S. soldiers also carried the virus from Army camps and Navy installations to the fighting forces overseas.
By late September, General “Black Jack” Pershing, who led the American Expeditionary Force, was calling for reinforcements, as a part of the first major military engagement in Europe. The next draft call was for 142,000 men, but Pershing was informed that in the United States: “Influenza not only stopped all draft calls in October but practically stopped all training.”
Under these conditions, Pershing, himself, was afflicted with this deadly virus. In fact, he was so ill and delirious that he misstepped in the first few days in November 1918. The General wrote a long narrative to the Supreme War Council negotiating the peace, where he seemed to abandon the movement toward an Armistice. Notwithstanding, on the 11th day of this 11th month, the Great War came to an end.
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Over the years, some more far-fetched “conspiratorial” theories have been proposed that the last German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, orchestrated the worldwide influenza pandemic, or even that the German U-Boats poisoned Boston Harbor with this infection. After all, the Kaiser did help instigate this war.
Certainly, there was a catastrophic effect on American, British and French soldiers. But civilian and military deaths in Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers), were also in the hundreds of thousands.
The Kaiser had a severe case of influenza in May of 1908, and he very well may have had another bout in 1918. He lost the support of his army, and he abdicated as the Emperor on November 28th of that year.
An American artist, born in 1887, Georgia O’Keeffe was well-known for her paintings of New York skyscrapers, the landscapes of New Mexico, and large flowers. Her first solo exhibition in New York City was hosted by Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and gallery owner who was influential in establishing the modernism art movement in America.
They entered into a long correspondence in 1917, with Stieglitz writing her almost daily for a year in a half. O’Keeffe’s bout with influenza ended up with marriage. While O’Keeffe was teaching in Texas, she came down with the flu in the spring of 1919. By that time, their relationship became romantic, even though Stieglitz was married to his wife for about a quarter of a century, and he was more than 20 years older than O'Keeffe. Stieglitz convinced her to return to NYC, and convalesce in his Manhattan home. This eventually led to a divorce from his wife.
Married in 1924, O'Keeffe and Steiglitz remained husband and wife until his death in 1946. O’Keeffe never remarried and would continue her paintings until she lost much of her eyesight in 1972. She died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1986 at the age of 98.
America’s movie sweetheart of the silent era, Mary Pickford, came down with influenza in January 1919. Already well known by movie-theater goers, the progress of her recovery appeared in the daily newspapers in Los Angeles. Two years earlier she starred in the critically acclaimed comedy-drama, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Pickford was one of the 36 original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization that awards the Oscars), and she helped formed what became United Artists studio (along with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and her future husband Douglas Fairbanks). She retired in 1932, after the break-up of her marriage to Fairbanks, and with the beginning of the addition of sound to the movies. Largely becoming a recluse until her death in 1979, she once said in an interview, “I knew it was time to retire; I wanted to stop before I was asked to stop.”
Those Who Died and Other Survivors of the Pandemic
The world lost many creative and talented people, including Austrian artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and German political sociologist Max Weber. William Randolph Hearst lost his mother Phoebe, and even President Donald Trump’s grandfather, Frederick, also died from this illness. Yet many other famous people survived, including:
Raymond Chandler – American screenwriter and author of mystery novels, who twice caught the flu while in France as a volunteer with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
Robert Graves – British author of I Claudius, Graves wrote of his experiences while in the army posted in Limerick in late 1918, saying I “woke up with a sudden chill, which I recognized as the first symptoms of Spanish influenza.” He decided to quickly leave Ireland, to overcome this virus in an English hospital. Leaving with a high fever, and without “official papers” that would secure his release, he was fortunate enough to share a taxi with an officer who could complete the necessary forms.
Margaret Dumont – American actress who retired from the stage, married a millionaire, and when he succumbed to influenza in 1918, she reluctantly returned to Broadway. Eventually, she teamed up with the Marx Brothers to play the role of a wealthy widow foil (life imitating art) to Groucho’s amorous insults. He called her “practically the fifth Marx Brother.”
Lilian Gish - American silent-movie star who was almost near death with her affliction in August 1918. This actress later jokingly remarked, “The only disagreeable thing was that it left me with flannel nightgowns – have to wear them all winter – horrible things.” She was unable to return to work until the second week in November.
Franz Kafka - German author who contracted the virus in October 1918, and wrote to his boss, “I lay in bed with a fever (which) is directly related to my lungs . . . I’m temporarily suffering from short, heavy breathing, weakness – inducing sweats at night.”
Haile Selassie I - Ethiopian emperor who was one of the first in his country to contract influenza but survived. Many of his subjects did not, and estimates of fatalities in the capital city of Addis Ababa were as high as 10,000 people.
King George V (U.K.) – Ruler who caught the flu in May 1918, and as the virus swept through England, his Grand Fleet could not launch for three weeks during this month with 10,313 sailors sick.
King Alfonso XIII (Spain) – Royalty who contracted the virus in the last week in May, along with his Prime Minister and many members of the Cabinet.
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.