The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918

Grade Levels: 6 - 8

Overview

Learn more about the flu epidemic that killed more Americans than all wars of the twentieth century combined.

Objectives

  • Students will learn about the scope and effects of the 1918 flu epidemic.

Materials

  • two large pieces of butcher paper, with headers pre-written, and taped to the wall
  • note cards, two per student
  • tape or glue to share as a class

Procedure

  1. Write the following three events and dates on the board:
    • World War I (1914-18):
    • AIDS, 1981-1999:
    • 1918-19 Flu Epidemic:

    Ask the students which event they think took the most American lives. Ask for a show of hands for each. Then write in the answers:

    • American deaths in World War I (1914-18): 116,516
    • American deaths from AIDS, 1981-1999: 425,357
    • American deaths from the 1918-19 Flu Epidemic: approximately 650,000
  2. Tell students that from spring 1918 to winter 1919, 25 percent of Americans – or one out of every four people – contracted the flu and about 3 percent of those who contracted the flu died from it. Figure out how many students that would be in your class. For example, if there are 28 students, then seven would become sick and, rounding up from .84, one student would die. Have the class stand up and then ask all but 25% to sit down, illustrating how many would be sick. Then ask only the final 3% to stand. Although this might not seem like so many people, tell the students that this is a single classroom. Ask them to imagine the consequences to the country if these numbers were multiplied at the school-wide, city-wide, state-wide levels. Take a few minutes to brainstorm what some of the results might be if that many people were sick or dead in the period of a year. Write down the responses. (Possible answers include effects to the workforce and productivity, schools and other institutions might have to close, hospitals and doctors would be inundated, etc.)

  3. Have a long piece of butcher paper taped to a wall. Label it “1918 Flu Epidemic” and write the twelve months across the page. Post another piece of butcher paper, this one vertically, and label it “Flu Facts.” Direct students to the following website and ask them to locate one date-specific event (e.g., In March, 2,000 new cases were reported in California) and one fact (e.g., .5 percent of the British population died during the epidemic) connected to the 1918 flu epidemic that they this is important. They should write each one down on a note card and then adhere the card either to the vertical list or the proper part of the timeline.

Assessment

When students have completed their fact-finding, ask them to review the sheets. If anyone contests someone else’s entry, he or she must refer to the original website to prove a correction. At the same time, have each student write one quiz question about a fact or date that is not theirs. Collect the quiz questions and create a quiz. You might split the students into teams and call the questions aloud, or you could produce a written quiz for the students to take the next day. Allow the students to use the butcher paper facts to complete their quizzes.

Extension

  • Based on the students’ research, discuss what made the 1918 flu epidemic particularly tragic and difficult (e.g., the flu preyed on the young and healthy; it occurred during a war when young men were already leaving home and being wounded or killed). Tell them that the epidemic is often not even mentioned in history textbooks. Ask why they think such an event has not been better remembered by history.

  • Could a flu similar in proportion to the one of 1918 happen again? Some of the websites referenced above indicate that it could. Brainstorm how we would react to such an epidemic today. Focus on the technology and ways in which – for better and worse, in terms of viruses – the world has become a smaller place since the early twentieth century.

  • Read and discuss a doctor’s letter describing the epidemic: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/influenza/sfeature/devens.html.

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