American soldiers in Camp Funston who were infected by Spanish flu 1918 (Wikipedia)

The autumn of 1918: The Spanish flu devastates Hungary

Autumn brought a terrible pandemic for Budapest and the country in 1918. It was the Spanish flu, upon the outbreak of which, in June a part og the Hungarian press made a poor out with their fake news, with belittling the danger, but Pesti Hírlap still lied to their readers even in the most severe moments of the pandemic, in autumn. The responsibility of the government, the capital and the public health authorities is just as severe: they were unable to solve the absence of doctors and medicine and the lack of organization also prevented them from coping with the pandemic, which mainly decimated the population of the back-country, and especially lively young adults from September 1918. 

Spanish flu was one of the most destructive pandemics of the 20th century. In the developed countries, it was the most well-known one in the last century. Researchers still argue over where the virus appeared for the first time, most likely the “breakpoint” was in Kansas in the spring of 1918. American soldiers joined up in Fort Riley before their transfer to Europe, and the date of the first illness is recorded to be March 4, 1918. (Subsequent troop movements accelerated the spread of the virus among the continents.) Contemporary press often wrote about the pandemic with delays, distortedly or untruthfully, since both the Entente, both the central powers wanted to conceal their weakness: they did not want to further demoralize their soldiers – as we have already written in a previous article.

Researchers still argue over whether the pandemic broke out for the first time in Northern France, in a camp for British wounded (even in 1917!), or perhaps China, or actually in Spain, giving the name of the pandemic. The “Kansas”, US version continues to be the most likely one, but the explanation for the “Spanish” name is well-known: the disease is called so because the neutral Spain did not take part in the First World War, therefore press was not restricted by censorship and therefore the first news in mass quantities came from there.

Though researchers argue over the “breakpoint”, but a scientist, Johan Hultin made made a terrific discovery following the analysis of the corpses in Alaska in the 2000s – examining the cold-preserved genetic material. He found out that the Spanish flu pandemic was caused by an avian influenza virus, more specifically the A type H1N1 variant. This virus is so dangerous that the pathogens found by the researcher are still kept under the strictest circumstances even today. It has turned out that the pathogen in 1918 was 39,000 times “more virulent” than flu viruses today. This is why it was possible that someone woke up with a severe cough, left to work and could die even on the go, this is how fast the process of the infection was. There were tragic examples in Hungary as well, but here it was worsened by the problems arising from the tremendous social inequalities and the outrageously bad functioning of health care services. Friss Újság wrote on October 9, 1918 as follows: “a little maid named Ilona Molnár was taken bad on the street while searching for hospital. The police notified the ambulance via phone”. But the ambulance, given “a pandemic patient”, “did not undertake to transport the girl”. The police then called the disinfection institute. “Meanwhile an hour passed and […] called the people of the disinfection institute via phone exactly at half past five. They – to the same of the capital town – appeared on the spot only at half past eight. Meanwhile, the poor maid just suffered, strained herself, her state was getting worse and worse, and by the time the car of the disinfection institute arrived to transfer her, a pneumonia-related heart weakness set in, and the girl died of heart attack after a short agony among the ringing tram cars.

Pesti Napló also judged the unpreparedness of public health care on September 28: according to the paper, the authorities, having seen the pandemic ravaging for three weeks, “finally woke up from their dreams and put in force certain regulations to prevent the spread of the Spanish flu, which they should have been taken when the pandemic broke out.” According to the paper, “after three weeks of negligence, Bódy mayor […] summoned dr. Szabó health officer”. According to the mayor, if “the pandemic does not stop, he will close all locations where the community meets in larger numbers […]” – he primarily meant schools –, and ordered the establishment of separate wards to take care of people suffering from the Spanish flu. The slowness of authorities is shown by the fact that a part of the official doctors were released from the military to help overcome the pandemic only in mid-October.

As a further problem, the virus involved serious complications, primarily pneumonia. This is important because in Hungarian press misleading news stating that the virus has nothing to do with the pneumonia were published even in September 1918. Pesti Hírlap wrote in September 24 the following: “Though the illness is mild and standard, a few schools had to be closed. Unfortunately, among the audience, misleading views have appeared regarding Spanish flu, as people are willing to attribute the casualties caused for example by pneumonia to the Spanish flu, though these two have nothing to do with each other, maybe that both start with high fever.” (Five days later the extent of the pandemic is so terrible that the paper has to admit that one of the most severe complications of Spanish flu is actually pleurisy and pneumonia.)

This was not the first fake news of the paper about Spanish flu: the, at that time, pro-government paper already misinformed their readers also at the beginning of the pandemic. We have already written that in June 14, 1918, Pesti Hírlap still wrote that the Spanish flu was remitting. Meanwhile, three days later, the virus appeared in Budapest too. Meanwhile, mailmen collapsed on the street in Berlin – we have already mentioned that this could happen because the virus was extremely rapid and virulent. In an article of Magyarország on July 7, they compared the killer disease to a “strong cold”. False news also obviously contributed to the people not taking precautionary measures, and though they could not find a cure for the virus, they started to avoid overcrowded locations that were dangerous for spreading the virus too late.

When the authorities finally took their measures, closing schools was among the first domestic actions in the autumn of 1918. This is known from a report in 1919 that in the autumn semester, ordinary teaching took place in elementary and secondary schools in Hungary only for a few weeks. Friss Újság reported on the closure of the schools in the capital on October 2, 1918. Originally, the measure would have been valid for two weeks only, but after multiple extensions, several months of forced school break followed.

The competent authorities continuously consulted on closing the cinemas and theatres by owner-operators, who continued to fight throughout for not having to suspend performances. Thereby finally they only reduced the number of performances and ordered compulsory ventilation break. (Dance schools lobbied in vain for not being listed as schools, because this way they could not open either.) On terribly crowded trams, they limited the number of departing passengers, prescribed how many people could travel at the beginning and end of partially open cars, how many can stand inside (from the middle of October, in Budapest: no one!) and in spite of the worsening weather, they made it compulsory to open the windows (in winter, the upper windows).

The virus devastated in the civilized world in several waves, the number of its victims is estimated to tens of millions, but estimates of 50-100 million are also frequent – for example, National Geographic also estimates that the number of victims of the 1918-1919 pandemic was between 20 and 100 million. Regarding the “original” infection that broke out at the end of the First World War, Anglo-Saxon resources say that larger, killer waves occurred at first in the spring and early summer of 1918, then in September-October, and finally in January 1919. (According to the National Geographic, the wave in September had the largest number of victims. In this wave, as an example, the 55-year-old Lloyd George British Prime Minister was also infected with the virus, and the British The Guardian wrote that he was cured for long days, weeks until he recovered.) In Hungary, the virus appeared a bit differently: after analysing more than a hundred contemporary news, we can find that the appearance of the virus in June – at least according to the press – involved only smaller groups, and at first, the ones in contact with the prisoners of war and the soldiers were infected. News about the illness arrived in July and August too, but the situation got really tragic only later.

The second wave was extremely severe, this domestic tragic event series already coincided with the killer wave of Anglo-Saxon countries. In September-October 1918, it was no longer possible to conceal the destruction of the pandemic in Budapest either. Hungarian newspapers wrote about the infection in one or more news every day, and the health office published a regular daily summary report. In late October and early November, the pandemic slightly eased (just upon the outbreak of the Aster Revolution), but intensified again by the end of November, and a smaller wave occurred even afterwards, though its extent fortunately did not reach the tragic peaks in September.

The virus was special because strangely it devastated the most not among the elderly, but the healthy young people, the age groups between 20 and 40. According to scientific theories, this was the age group who had not yet encountered this type of the virus. Avian influenza did not appear in Europe in the life of these generations, but elder people could have become somewhat immunized against such infections in the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century.

Among middle-aged people, the virus primarily threatened those already having a serious illness: Endre Ady died at the end of January 1919, in its necrology on January 28, Népszava mentioned Spanish flu as the direct cause of his death. The pandemic contributed to his death also according to the necrology of Pesti Napló  as well.  Among prelates, Dr. Tibor Hajdú archbishop of Pannonhalma also died of the pandemic according to the news of Friss Újság on October 23, 1918.

Since young adults were more defenceless, many of them lost their life in Hungary in the autumn of 1918. The press reported on countless family tragedies: children of famous people died one after the other. Being one of the most tragic historic turns, a few days after the murder of the former Prime Minister, Count István Tisza, on November 7 Népszava reported on his son, jr. István Tisza, Lieutenant of cavalry died of Spanish flu  in Geszt, on their family estate.

However, on the first of November, the issue reporting on the death of the ex-Prime Minister, Népszava reported on the victory of the revolution on the front page, but also wrote about public health care on the sixth page. According to this, the initial governmental body of the Aster Revolution, the National Council ordered that “considering the bad health conditions in Budapest, the raging Spanish pandemic, all public health, public hospital, military health care and public sanitation workers, doctors and nurses are expected to continue work and hold it their duty to support the National Council with their work”, and it was typical of the situation at that time that the article informing about the regulation ended as follows: “Ambulance and public health cars may not be booked.”

The situation was also tragic outside the capital: among reports of Friss Újság in October, the following are worth highlighting: In Bihar county, the sub-prefect ordered that “Lectures shall be suspended in all schools for three weeks”. In Nyíregyháza “around three thousand people are lying sick”. In Nagybecskerek, the Spanish flu “is spreading more and more”. “80-100 patients visit the medical office of the workers’ insurance medical office a day.” Also in Délvidék, “in Pancsov, 14 people have died of the pandemic so far.” News about the remitting Spanish flu in Pécs arrived in mid-October, but “but 52 of the 144 students of the state metal industry vocational school are ill”. In Lőcse, the sub-prefect “ordered the closure of all schools”, “in Brasov, the convent of the sisters of the Saint Francis Order was closed due to Spanish flu.”  In Temesvár, 111 of the 600 students of the state high school got ill, therefore the mayor closed all schools. Meanwhile, the chief constable of Margitta reported that: “there are not official doctors in his district, therefore he asks for four pandemic doctors”.

According to the news of Pesti Napló at the end of September, “In Eger, the appearance of the Spanish flu was severe. So far, 115 students got ill in the main grammar school. The grammar school and the high school had to close. The town and county chief physician also got infected with the Spanish flu. So far, six people died of the illness.” The paper also wrote that the number of sick people is above a hundred in Ungvár, and in Nagykanizsa, “all schools had to be closed due to the pandemic”. In Debrecen, the pharmacy of József Mihalovits, one of the largest pharmacies of the country, “where seven permanent pharmacist assistants worked even during the recent shortage of staff due to the war”, was also closed: “All assistants of the pharmacy got ill, and since the owner does not have available replacement, he had to close the pharmacy”. The following was reported from Marosvásárhely: “The reformed college was closed due to the Spanish flu. One hundred and sixty people are ill in the college.” As mentioned, in the majority of the country, schools remained closed until early 1919 – but soon schools of some countryside towns did not belong to the competence of Hungary, but successor states on the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

The pandemic coupled with terrible housing conditions. For example, water was shut off at night in Budapest. Pesti Hírlap reported on October 16 that they had demanded that water pipes in the capital shall be kept open at night in vain. The paper was informed, as noted in the title: “Water pipes remained closed at night”. The situation was tragic due to the lack of material and the bad preparedness of waterworks. The paper wrote: “We brought up that water pipes shall be opened at night. This is asked by doctors. Now the council of the capital decided, based on the proposal of the water pipes department, that they continue to uphold their regulation regarding the closure of water pipes at night.” According to the official statement, since “water pipes cannot be repaired owing to the lack of material, as a result of keeping them open at night,  a part of Buda, Kőbánya, stations and higher floors would remain completely without water, which would be much more disadvantageous from the perspective of the spread of the pandemic than keeping it open.”

By the end of November and early December, the number of ill and dead people grew dramatically again. Népszava wrote about it in December 7: “Spanish flu increases again to a frightening extent.  […] Of course, authorities again started to take measures and search for the manners and tools for protection against the pandemic. Schools have been closed and kept as such for even longer, until January 6. Theatres, cinemas, places of entertainment are regulated, and the audience is generally warned to avoid locations that are visited by many people”.

On January 4, Népszava wrote: “The following statistics were created by the town hall about the victims of the Spanish flu: In October, 21479 people got ill and 1455 died: in November 9140 people got ill and 849 died: in December 5178 people got ill and 715 died.” Az Est wrote on January 3, however, based on national data, that in October, 44 thousand people died of the Spanish flu. It is difficult to verify the statement of the paper after a hundred years, and the wording of the article is quite confusing. The information was allegedly from the statement of the statistical office. But according to the paper, the 44 thousand victims was only an underestimation of the number of actual victims, since “it only includes the data of 3500 of the 5000 registry districts; since records of 1500 districts did not arrive due to disturbances in transport and administration.”

The first good news about the pandemic arrived on February 9, 1919 Sunday. Népszava wrote: “It seems that the Spanish pandemic is about to cease. On Friday, finally, no one died in Spanish flu.” The number of newly infected patients was also only 12. On February 12, they wrote that no one died in Budapest on February 10. However, on February 21, Népszava already published the title: “The Spanish flu is over”, since according to the reports received by the chief medical office, “on February 19, a total of 9 new Spanish flu infections occurred. No people died. Given the fact that the pandemic nature of the Spanish flu completely ceased in the past week, the chief medical office will not publish reports in the future.”

Table: The number of people who died of Spanish flu in Budapest a day (number of people)

(The dates refer to the publication date of the papers, the mortality data are approximate, because the papers were not published every day, and sometimes reported aggregate data, which cannot be divided into days. But the tendency is clearly shown by these numbers too.)

1918 October 9 – October 22: 40–73
1918 October 22 – November 2: 55-58
1918 November 3 – November 17: 19-33
1918 November 19 – December 1: 23-38
1918 December 1 – December 7: 34-54
1918 December 10 – December 15: 19-33
1918 December 16 – December 20: 16-43
1919 January 1 – January 15: 4-11
1919 January 16 – January 31: 2-7
1919 February 1 – February 6: 1-7
1919 February 9: 0 – the first day when papers do not report on casualties from Budapest
1919 February 11: 1 person is reported to have died by the papers.
1919 February 12: 0 – the second day when no casualties were reported by the papers in Budapest

Sources of the data in the table:

Friss Újság, October 11-13; October 15–18; October 20; October 23; October 25–26, 1918. Népszava, November 2; November 5–7; November 9–10; November 12; November 15–17; November 19–22; November 1; December 4–6, 1918; January 1; January 4–5; January 14–15; January 17; January 21–23; February 9; February 12, 1919.
Az Est, December 1; December 7; December 10; December 13–15; December 17–18; December 20, 1918; January 16; February 2–4; February 11, 1919.
Pesti Napló, January 7; January 10, 1919.

A spanyolországi járvány enyhülése = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. június 14.
A spanyol influenza Budapesten = Magyarország, 1918. július 4.
A spanyol betegség Németországban. Tömeges megbetegedések = Magyarország, 1918. július 5.
A spanyol influenza = Magyarország, 1918. július 7.
Bezárták a budapesti iskolákat = Friss Újság, 1918. október 2.
Orvosi értekezlet a spanyolnátha ügyében = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. szeptember 24.
A spanyol betegség terjedése = Pesti Napló, 1918. szeptember 28.
Védekezés a spanyolnátha ellen = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. szeptember 29.
A spanyol betegség. Nem csukják be a mozikat = Friss Újság, 1918. október 4.
Nyolcvanhét halott három nap alatt Budapesten = Friss Újság, 1918. október 5.
A spanyol betegség = Friss Újság, 1918. október 9.
Terjed a spanyol betegség. A katonaság szabadságolta a hatósági orvosokat = Friss Újság, 1918. október 15.
„Éjjel zárva marad a vízvezeték” = Pesti Hírlap, 1918. október 16.
1050 új megbetegedés és 73 halálozás = Friss Újság, 1918. október 19.
A pannonhalmi főapát meghalt spanyol betegségben = Friss Újság, 1918. október 23.
Csökkent a spanyol járvány = Friss Újság, 1918. október 27.
A közegészségügy érdekében = Népszava, 1918. november 1.
Ifjabb Tisza István meghalt = Népszava, 1918. november 7.
Veszedelmes méreteket ölt újra a járvány = Népszava, 1918. december 7.
A spanyol járvány 44000 halottja = Az Est, 1919. január 3.
A spanyol betegség áldozatai = Népszava, 1919. január 4.
Ady Endre [NEKROLÓG] = Népszava, 1919. január 28.
Nádas Sándor: Ady meghalt. = Pesti Napló, 1919. január 28.
A spanyol járvány = Népszava, 1919. február 9.
A spanyol járvány megszűnt = Népszava, 1919. február 21.
Toby Saul: Inside the Swift, Deadly History of the Spanish Flu Pandemic = National, 2018. március 4.
Mark Honigsbaum: Spanish flu: the killer that still stalks us, 100 years on. = The Guardian, 2018. szeptember 9.

Created by: Iván Miklós Szegő