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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)
smithsonianmag.com

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.

Those Who Died and Other Survivors of the Pandemic

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(Gustav Klimt, Wikipedia)

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.

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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