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.

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.

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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