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.

Woodrow Wilson


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.

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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