They called it the Spanish flu, and in October 1918 one of the most dangerous viruses in world history established a foothold in Lawrence.
The city practically shut down.
In the Oct. 8 issue of the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, page one headlines alternated between World War I news of the "Yanks" taking on the "Huns" at Cambrai and city and state health officials ordering the closure of schools and theaters while banning church services, lodge meetings and public assemblies.
As battles raged in Europe, Lawrence was preparing to fight a different war of its own.
"Obviously we had flu in the 1800s and we had flu many times before that, but nothing like this," said Dr. Chien Liu, professor emeritus who served as director of infectious diseases at Kansas University Medical Center from 1963 to 1991.
Today, medical and health officials are concerned about a possible avian or bird flu pandemic that could sweep through the world, leaving a trail of illness and death in its wake. They need only look at the 1918 pandemic to envision a possible worst-case scenario. The 1918 flu also was a bird flu, modern researchers say.
It isn't clear how many people died in Lawrence because of the flu. There is little information available about what happened here except from reading newspaper stories now stored on microfilm. And most of the stories and information about deaths came from KU sources. By the time the flu had run its course in early November, 23 KU students and one staff member had died. The flu had infected about 1,000, mostly KU students and members of the Student Army Training Center and some staff. There were 3,000 students enrolled at the time.
"There was just no sense of anything they could do to prevent the illness and the dying," said Kathy Tuttle, a KU associate vice provost and one of the university's historians. "I think that must have made it a horrible feeling for all the people involved."
Flu starts in Kansas
The 1918 flu obtained its Spanish nickname because Spain was the first European nation to highly publicize the outbreak in that country. Other European nations also had outbreaks, but because of the war, newspapers were giving little, if any, publicity to bad news.
Most historical accounts, however, say the flu originated in Kansas, at Fort Riley's Camp Funston. The first reports of soldiers getting sick occurred in March. Historians also think American soldiers sent to Europe were the main carriers of the disease to that continent.
According to the 2004 book "The Great Influenza" by John M. Barry, the origin of the flu may have been January or February in Haskell County in southwest Kansas. It then spread to Camp Funston.
By October, the flu had spread dramatically throughout the United States. On Oct. 2 in Boston, 202 people died in a single day. In Philadelphia, 289 people died on Oct. 6. New York reported 851 deaths in one day.
Outbreak ends quickly
In Lawrence on Oct. 8, it was reported there were 92 cases of flu at KU. Chancellor Frank Strong ordered the university closed. The outbreak also led to Lawrence Mayor W.W. Holyfield issuing a proclamation closing theaters and forbidding public gatherings of more than 20 people in one place. Kansas Gov. Arthur Capper issued a similar statewide order.
Strong also ordered KU students not to leave town and thus carry the disease to other parts of the state. Nevertheless, up to 500 students violated the order and left anyway, according to newspaper accounts.
KU football games also were called off, including a game with Missouri.
The magnitude of the flu outbreak in the city remained murky, according to a statement from then city health officer A.W. Clark.
"The reason for this is that the physicians have been so busy that they have not taken the time to make reports to the health offices," Clark said in the Journal-World.
At KU, 151 male students were under observation at the Student Army Training Center. A new barracks was used to house the extremely sick patients.
By Nov. 2, the number of flu cases had dropped dramatically and on Nov. 8, city flu bans were lifted.
The Spanish flu killed more than 600,000 Americans by the time it had mostly run its course at the end of November 1918. Worldwide there were 25 million to 37 million deaths.
1918 flu death toll
Worldwide: 25 million to 37 million people In the United States: about 600,000 In Lawrence: no records exist At Kansas University: 24
How likely is a bird flu pandemic today? Though there have been a few human bird flu cases in Southeast Asia, it has still primarily been spread among chickens, Liu said.
The concern is that the bird flu virus might mix with the human flu virus and exchange genes, causing a new super flu that could be transmitted more easily among humans. There is no true vaccine for such a flu.
"There is an experimental vaccine that has been developed, but it takes time to mass produce it," Liu said.
A national expert recently told officials here that a new flu pandemic would likely leave hundreds dead in Douglas County and hospitalize up to 11,000 people.