Was the 1918 Flu Pandemic a Leadership Failure?

By | December 23, 2018

[December 23, 2018]  The world today is recognizing the end of World War I; brought to an end by an armistice on November 11, 1918.  Often overlooked was a killer far deadlier than the war.  The 1918 Flu Pandemic killed an estimated 50-100 million people.  But was it a failure in leadership that caused it to spread?

The question is ignored; not because it’s neither relevant nor unimportant.  The question of whether the influence (flu) pandemic occurred because of a failure in leadership simply remains unasked because the war overshadowed it.  The war, on the other hand, was a major contributing factor to the spread of the flu.

The 1918 flu occurred because of the close quarters and massive troop movements helped fuel the spread of the disease.  In the U.S., unusual flu activity was first detected in military camps and some cities during the Spring of 1918.  Communications about the severity and spread of the flu were kept quiet as officials were concerned about keeping up public morale and not giving away information about illness among soldiers during wartime.1

In 1918, scientists had not yet discovered viruses, so there were no tests to diagnose, detect, or identify the flu.  Prevention and treatment methods were limited.  For example, unlike today, there were no vaccines to protect against infection, no antiviral drugs to treat, and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections.

To prevent the spread of the flu, efforts to limit the spread of the disease were limited to a variety of measures that helped.  This included the promotion of good hygiene, isolation and quarantine of the sick, use of disinfectants, and closures of public settings.  Leadership, mostly at the local level, was a major factor in keeping the number of deaths down in the U.S. and in other industrial nations.

While many will argue that the cause of World War I is the failure of much of Europe’s political leadership, we can unequivocally say that the 1918 Flu Pandemic was not a leadership failure.  The war was certainly a factor in the spread of the flu but not of its cause.  If it were not for the many political and societal leaders, the destruction of the 1918 flu pandemic would have been much worse.


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/features/1918-flu-pandemic/index.html
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

18 thoughts on “Was the 1918 Flu Pandemic a Leadership Failure?

  1. Max Foster

    When the pandemic broke out during World War I, neither side wanted the other to find out they were sick; nor did they want their own troops to lose morale or their publics to panic. News of the outbreak was suppressed or heavily underplayed in Germany, France, the U.K., and the U.S. But Spain, like Switzerland, was neutral in the war, and its media had no qualms about covering the contagious outbreak weakening its population, creating the false impression that this was a Spanish disease.

    1. Lady Hawk

      Thanks Max for the notes on how other countries handled the spread of the virus and naming it the ‘Spanish Flu.’

  2. Martin Shiell

    Some say that the epidemic may have played a role in ending the war.

  3. Scotty Bush

    Correct, it was not so much a failure of leadership as a lack of medical knowledge on how to treat the virus and prevent it from spreading.

  4. Jerome Smith

    The impact of this pandemic was not limited to 1918–1919. All influenza pandemics since that time, and indeed almost all cases of influenza worldwide (excepting human infections from avian viruses such as H5N1 and H7N7), have been caused by descendants of the 1918 virus, including “drifted” H1N1 viruses and reassorted H2N2 and H3N2 viruses. Interesting!

  5. Wilson Cox

    The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the deadliest in history, infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide; about one-third of the planet’s population.

    1. Darryl Sitterly

      Although the Spanish flu pandemic felled millions worldwide, it didn’t ricochet around the globe at high speed. “The 1918 virus did not spread any faster than other pandemics; the timing was very typical for a pre-airplane pandemic,” John M. Barry, MA, a historian and author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (Viking, 2004). Viruses move as fast as people move.

  6. Lynn Pitts

    Leaders, including medical doctors, didn’t all contribute solutions for the good of our citizens. The quackery, the nonsense, and harm that physicians threw at their patients, killed many.

    1. Eric Coda

      I agree. A century on, we know more but scientists still can’t prevent or cure the flu. The shadow of this pandemic dogs us still.

  7. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Exactly a century ago, a virulent, highly contagious flu infected an estimated one-third of the globe. Somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died. The 1918 influenza took more lives in 15 months than AIDS has claimed in 40 years and buried more than the bubonic plague killed in a century.

    1. Watson Bell

      The intensity and speed with which the flu struck were almost unimaginable. It was the worst global pandemic in modern history.

  8. Army Captain

    Great article today. I agree, I think WW1 overshadowed the flu epidemic and thus we hear little about it. Advances in medicine have made the flu a minor inconvenience in the modern world.

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