Zsigmond Gerlóczy, 1933 (wikipedia)

The summer of 1918: Spanish flu appeared in Budapest, mailmen collapsed on the streets of Berlin

Though in June 1918 Pesti Hírlap still published reassuring news about the alleged remission of the Spanish influenza pandemic, later named Spanish flu, a month later authorities admitted that the disease had appeared in the Hungarian capital as well. As it later turned out, the majority of contemporary news depicted the reality much better, and the flu caused mass illnesses around the world. In Budapest, in the summer of 1918, the virus, which had mainly infected soldiers and prisoners of war, already spread among the civilian population too.

“As reported by papers from Madrid, a considerable improvement has been experienced in the influenza pandemic that had broken out recently in Spain. King Alfonz is completely healthy again. The mysterious illness lasts longer than generally thought and often has a fatal outcome”,
wrote Pesti Hírlap on June 14, 1918, which news we have already discussed in elsovh.hu, as something that was not to be believed. We have already mentioned in our earlier briefing that the influenza pandemic did not break out in Spain but in America, and not in June, but in March 1918. However, secrecy was in the interest of all the warring parties, because they wanted to cushion the pandemic, which could have demoralized the soldiers, who did not really manifest much fighting spirit already at that time. This is why they called it Spanish flu, because there was no interest in secrecy for the neutral Spain, therefore the first news about the spread of the pandemic arrived from there indeed.

But the biggest lie in Pesti Hírlap was the news about the remission of the “Spanish” flu. It did not ease at all, and it even spread across Europe. Selecting three random days from July, papers in Pest were all publishing the news that the first civilians also got infected in Budapest. (Not to mention that, after the news from June, Spanish flu still infected for decades, and the pandemic killed at least 15 million people, but this is the smallest number read about the afterlife of the flu in the 1920s and 1930s.  For example, Tolnai Világlapja wrote on April 20, 1927 in the article entitled The bacillus of the Spanish flu has been discovered that “Spanish pandemics of the recent years killed more than 15 million people, so this seemingly innocuous epidemic has made more destruction in mankind than the World War itself”.

But what happened in July 1918? The paper named Magyarország wrote about the first civilian illnesses on July 4, 1918, but only at the end of the article, hidden between the lines. The title “Spanish flu in Budapest” must have raised the attention of readers anyway. (Regarding the flu, subsequently it can be stated that the immunity of the weakened population owing to the privations of war was much weaker at the time of the pandemic than in a peace year when they could eat properly and get food that was rich in vitamins, protein and other nutrients.)

Of course, Magyarország did not discuss it in July 1918, since they could not be aware of the consequences of the virus, involving mass casualties – since influenza is not caused by bacteria, as the ambiguous contemporary news stated, when papers wrote about “bacilli”. However, many knew about the dangerous complications already at that time. However, according to the article of Magyarország on July 4, “the flu-like illness from Spain also appeared in Budapest. Here, only soldiers and prisoners of war got ill so far. These cases were all mild forms of the disease.”

The paper interviewed Sándor Szabó Chief Health Officer, who said that the illness first appeared in Budapest 17 days earlier (i.e. around June 17). „In Zita Hospital, sixty people got sick, a few days later, the Spanish flu was diagnosed in the case of 27 soldiers in Tőzsde military hospital, and most recently, 18 Russian prisoners fell ill in the Ganz factory”, writes the article.

According to Szabó, the illness starts with shivers, the fever rises rapidly and respiratory organs show catarrhal symptoms. “It’s still uncertain whether the Spanish illness is influenza or another illness. Patients are separated in order to prevent the spread of the illness, the health officer said”, wrote Magyarország, since they could not do much else in that era. “The public can be relaxed” , the article continued, adding that there were some sick people in the Korányi clinic with the above symptoms. “Basch Chief Medical Officer, the director of Zita Hospital also says that the disease is mild and harmless“, quoted Magyarország the other expert. The flu appeared in Zita Hospital for several persons at the same time, sometimes with symptoms of bronchitis. The contemporary underdeveloped conditions are well characterized by the fact that “bacteriological studies did not find flu or other known bacteria”. Even more, the Chief Medical Officer declared: “The epidemic is already declining. No special treatment is needed, patients receive food that is suitable for their feverish condition.”

According to the article, “Bernát Vass university teacher conducted the bacteriological examination of the patient’s blood and secretion, the results of which were negative. No evidence has shown in the examinations so far that would have been suitable for determining what the bacterium in the virulent state actually was.”

Afterwards, the paper reports on the most serious consequences: “The first illnesses from the Spanish disease were diagnosed today among civilian population. Today a doctor and a nurse got ill with the symptoms of the Spanish disease in the branch hospital at Telepi Street. No case has been reported from the public, however, this does not prove that no milder illness that neither the patient nor the doctor took notice of have occurred.”

Meanwhile, reports were coming from all over Europe about an increasingly devastating epidemic. On July 4, Magyarország also reported that the Spanish flu spread all over the German Empire: In Berlin, at least three thousand people were infected, in Mannheim and Ludwigshafen, the disease attacked around one-third of the population. However, the news ended with probably reassuring remarks: “The illness is completely innocent. Serious cases are rarities. Patiens show noticable improvement in two to three days.”

The next day, on July 5, more alarming news came from Germany: one third of the population was ill not only in Mannheim, but also in Karlsruhe and Danzig, according to Magyarország. As the paper wrote: “No casualties were reported. In Berlin, Spanish flu spread mostly in Western suburbs of the capital. Several postmen collapsed on the streets, they were taken to hospital immediately. In Mannheim, more than two thousand people got ill.” According to the report, nearly thirty people requested admittance to hospitals in Vienna. In the same issue, the medical office of the capital announced that diseases were very sporadic in Budapest and “they were mild.” Even more, according to the news, in Budapest, the epidemic was declining, while the infection in Pest County “appeared in large numbers“. In fact, the Pest county news stating that “Fifty workers got the new illness at the same time” was about a workshop in Istvántelek, which now belongs to the territory of Budapest. The health officer still emphasized that the illness was mild, but this might have been increasingly suspicious to readers – if the disease is so mild, why this should be said so many times?

Meanwhile in Germany the epidemic caused disruptions in postal and tram traffic as well: “In Munich, the staff of the municipal tram network was so infected by the bacilli of the disease that on Thursday various restrictions had to be introduced in traffic”, wrote Magyarország on July 5, also reporting on the spread of the epidemic in England based on Dutch resources.

On 6 July, an advertisement-like short report was published in Magyarországstating: “Against the Spanish flu, in order to disinfect the oral cavity, use Anacot lozenges.” “Real” news continued to report: “it did not spread in the capital in large scale“, but “new patients have been diagnosed with the illness” in the neighbourhood. Zsigmond Gerlóczy university teacher qualified the illness as an “ordinary influenza”, “similar to which has been present as an epidemic many times in the capital and might involve ear infections, pleurisy or pneumonia”. Gerlóczy found the news spread about the Spanish epidemic exaggerated.  Returning to the first days of the epidemic (more specifically, the first days of the news reports thereof, because the news revealed that the infection had been present in the capital for weeks at that time), on 6 July, news about the spread of the infection already came from rural Hungarian towns as well. According to Magyarország, the illness appeared “sporadically” in Szeged (“three workmen and two young ladies”). Regarding the latter, it has been found that “the bacilli of the disease were brought home from the recently returned batman of their brother on the battlefield.”

Magyarország wrote the following on July 7: “In Budapest, in the last twenty-four hours, from noon yesterday to noon today, a total of six cases of the illness were reported to the Chief Health Officer. All cases are mild, no special symptoms have been noted, so the entire illness cannot be considered other than a heavy cold.”

From Nagyvárad and Arad, sporadic cases were reported indeed, but according to the report to the Chief Health Officer from Szeged, “hundreds of workers got the Spanish flu on one of the industrial plants. News also arrived about the fact that thirty people got ill among miner soldiers, and additional 12 patients are treated in the military hospital, but the illness is also mild there.”

On July 7, Magyarország tried to investigate what the causes of the Spanish flu are, and reported on a relevant meeting from Madrid. In Madrid, in mid-June, the Spanish medical academy held a meeting, where several academicians dealt with the influenza ravaging the city. Dr. Hernando, the head of the scientific society said, according to the news, that main symptoms of the flu-like disease are “fever symptoms and respiratory disorders”. The fever is mild, but “breathing disorders involve bronchial symptoms and pulmonary dysfunctions“. The news reported on more alarming phenomena as well: it has also occurred that “some patients who seemed to have been recovered suddenly died after two or three days”. Phenomena similar to meningitis have occurred, while the Spanish professor said that the illness did not have special remedy: “The use of quinine was not really successful, but antipyrine was effectively used.” Another physician reported that “only nine of his sixty influenza patients died, seven of whom had bilateral lung edema and liver fatigue“.

Magyarország closed the news on the meeting of Spanish doctors as follows: “When summing up the discussion, the chairman found that the mass illnesses in the Spanish capital are the result of a very varied form of cold, which is epidemic and mostly mild. When considering the views of doctors from Madrid, it should be taken into account that they were confined merely to the illnesses in Madrid during their studies. In Madrid, due to the special climatic conditions, the diseases of respiratory organs are frequent and dangerous.”

Following the obviously embellished news from 1918, let us quote an article published in Tolnai Világlapja in 1936: “Since 1918, nearly twenty million people died in Spanish flu and the epidemic returns every year to take serious casualties”.

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 5.
A spanyol influenza = Magyarország, 1918. július 6.
Spanyol betegség ellen, a szájüreg fertőtlenítésére, szopogassunk Anacot pasztillát = Magyarország, 1918. július 6.
A spanyol influenza = Magyarország, 1918. július 7.
Fölfedezték a spanyolnátha bacillusát = Tolnai Világlapja, 1927. április 20.
Nincs többé spanyolbetegség = Tolnai Világlapja, 1936. január 22.
Tarján M. Tamás: 11 March 1918 – A spanyolnátha elindul világpusztító útjára = Rubicon.hu

Created by: Iván Miklós Szegő