Paths of Infection: The First World War and the Origins of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic – Mark Osborne Humphries

Published in War in History 21: 1 (2013)

Abstract: The origin site for the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed more than 50 million people worldwide has been hotly debated. While the mid-western United States, France, and China have all been identified as potential candidates by medical researchers, the military context for the pandemic has been all but ignored. Conversely, military historians have paid little attention to a deadly disease which underlines the reciprocal relationship between battlefield and home front. This paper re-examines the debate about the origins and diffusion of the 1918 flu within the context of global war, bridging gaps between social, medical, and military history in the process. A multidisciplinary perspective combined with new research in British and Canadian archives reveals that the 1918 flu most likely emerged first in China in the winter of 1917–18, diffusing across the world as previously isolated populations came into contact with one another on the battlefields of Europe. Ethnocentric fears – both official and popular – facilitated its spread along military pathways that had been carved out across the globe to sustain the war effort on the Western Front.

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