One of the Millions: FDR and the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920

By Kevin Thomas, Special Events Coordinator

The New York Times made it abundantly clear on September 20, 1918:

F.D. Roosevelt Spanish Grip Victim

Removed the previous day from the USS Leviathan in New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt was taken to his mother’s residence in the city to recuperate. He was one of the millions around the world stricken with the H1N1 strain of Influenza, which came to be known as the “Spanish Flu.” His greatest battle with the illness would lie ahead – fighting the pneumonia that often came as an additional complication.

The New York Tribune described to its readers that Roosevelt had contracted the illness on the voyage home from Europe. He was visiting US forces stationed there during World War I. The newspaper assured its readers that “[T]he case of pneumonia was said to be a light one and Mr. Roosevelt’s condition is not regarded as serious.” In actuality, it was double pneumonia.

New-York tribune. September 20, 1918, Page 9
Image provided by: Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The virus was named for Spain, not because it originated there, but simply because that nation, neutral in the war, was unhampered by censorship laws. Its newspapers freely spoke of the terrible situation Spain was facing – consequently it became associated with the outbreak. The nations at war, including the United States, were afraid of providing a morale boost to their enemies, or morale damage to their own home fronts and fighting forces; they clamped down on broad coverage of the outbreak.

Where on the planet the virus originated, is unknown. It first surfaced in the United States in the early months of 1918. By summer, the war was in its fourth year. The United States was beginning to play a greater role in the conflict, and that role would grow larger in the weeks ahead. Americans were arriving in Europe in great numbers, each day. They brought the virus with them.

As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt debarks from a seaplane aircraft with Charles Mason, pilot, pictured behind in Pauillac, France. 1918.
NPx 47-96:629

Roosevelt arrived that summer as well. He was on a mission to inspect US Naval forces in Western Europe. He traveled extensively; visiting installations, meeting military and government officials from the US and other allied nations, and meeting sailors and marines on the western front.

Franklin Roosevelt’s interaction with the virus likely occurred just prior to, or onboard the USS Leviathan, the ship on which he traveled back to the United States. Many members of the crew became seriously ill; some perished. When the ship arrived in New York, Roosevelt had to be removed on a stretcher.

The Washington times. September 20, 1918, FINAL EDITION
Image provided by: Library of Congress, Washington, DC

In the weeks and months ahead, the second wave of the virus would kill far more than the first wave had earlier in the year. October 1918, would become the deadliest month of the pandemic. Before WWI ended that fall, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George and US Army General John J. Pershing would also be stricken with the virus.

Historians continue to debate the impact of the virus on the war’s outcome; the war itself playing the role of spreading the virus – as warships and troops moved throughout the globe in a “World War.”

The militaries of the nations at war were struck particularly hard – the close quarters in both training camps at home, and the trenches abroad, escalated the spread of the virus. But, despite high infection rates, military deaths were not necessarily higher, as the best doctors, nurses, and medical professionals were serving in the military or helping the war effort.
The US Navy fared better than the US Army. The Navy suffered over 5,000 deaths to the flu, compared to nearly 50,000 in the Army.

The Department of the Navy in which Roosevelt worked, did the best they could to deal with the stress of the virus on its fleet. Some cases were particularly critical, such as the fate of the USS Pittsburgh, in port at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. By mid-October, as the virus struck there, 663 became ill, over half the crew, and 58 would die.

The virus was worse ashore, in training camps, such as Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois. By October, the US Army’s draft was suspended, as the training camps were simply too dangerous to keep open.

Among those tasked to care for the sick, were the Navy’s nurses. The US Navy Nurse Corps numbered around 1,500, and as is the case for maladies with no cure, or no effective treatment – nurses and their care were often the difference between living and dying.

Several nurses died after exposure to the flu. Three of these nurses were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest decoration in the Navy or Marine Corps.

Most who contracted the virus would survive, but the high mortality rate, particularly among young adults, only added to the suffering felt by a world at war – a war which was already the deadliest in history.

Despite the staggering loss of life – far more than in World War I itself – it has been coined as the “forgotten illness.”

In the United States, news from the battlefield covered newspaper plates each day, and often overshadowed reports of flu deaths. The limited coverage of the flu, meant the disease was mostly viewed in a local lens. When the virus struck a town or city, it consumed life, with quarantines and closures of businesses, schools, and banks. It created a sensation of fear and mistrust that took some time to dissipate.

Until recently, with the emergence of COVID-19, the pandemic was a footnote, overshadowed by World War I and the Great Depression.

What cannot be forgotten, is how very close the virus came to further altering that timeline.
President Woodrow Wilson would suffer from the Spanish Flu during the Paris Peace Conference in the spring of 1919. His condition was worse than many were led to believe, and he had to be excused from the conference, at a critical moment in the proceedings. He would recover, and return to the conference.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
. , None. [Between 1918 and 1920] Photograph.

Franklin D. Roosevelt would also recover and move on from his experience. Two years later, he would be candidate for Vice President of the United States. In the summer of 1921, he would battle yet another infection, this time Polio, which would not leave him unscathed. He would later go on to lead the country as President, in a second, and deadlier world war.

Had Wilson or Roosevelt not recovered, the “American Century” would have been very different.

Millions however, did not recover. Conservative estimates on the worldwide death toll from the pandemic, account for 17 million succumbing to the illness. Other estimates point at an excess of 50 million deaths. Nearly 700,000 were Americans.

To date, it remains the deadliest pandemic this country and world has ever faced.