I had never heard of the 1918 influenza pandemic when my laboratory decided to try to decode the genetic sequence of the virus from archived samples at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). The year was 1995, and I was in my mid-thirties. None of my contemporaries had ever heard of the pandemic either. So what made this a compelling scientific question? Despite its obscurity (the only book we could find about it, by Alfred Crosby, was entitled America’s Forgotten Pandemic), the pandemic raised important questions: why was the mortality rate so much higher than other pandemics? Why did it particularly target young adults? Where did the virus come from?
In 1918 in the northern suburban fringe of Chicago, an insidious illness killed twice the number of naval personnel in two months than combat did during the entire First World War. The so-called Spanish influenza epidemic swept through Great Lakes Naval Training Station “like the Black Plague,” recalled Martin Birkham, a YMCA volunteer at the training station. The hard choices made at Great Lakes should haunt us today.