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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Influenza 1918

Airs Monday, February 1, 2010 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Terrified by the sudden death all around them, Americans sought protection from the dreaded influenza epidemic of 1918 with both traditional medical techniques, such as surgical masks, and folk remedies.

In the spring and summer of 1918, a new flu outbreak, dubbed Spanish Influenza, moved with soldiers from the European battlefields of World War I to the homefront. By September, the flu began to exact a toll on the civilian population; in the month of October alone, 195,000 Americans died of the disease. In total, more than 500,000 Americans succumbed to the flu that year, more than all the combat casualties in all the wars of the 20th century. Globally, the death toll has been estimated at anywhere between 20 and 40 million people. Watch the full program online.

Medical Investigation of Influenza:

The surprise pandemic of 1918 shook Americans’ confidence in the medical establishment that had previously found vaccines for other lethal diseases like smallpox and typhoid. People tried everything to avoid getting the virus — from gargling with mouthwash to wearing masks — but it was not until years after the pandemic was over that scientists made any real breakthroughs. View the photo gallery.

Video

Preview: American Experience: Influenza 1918

Above: A flu like no other sweeps across the country, first starting at military bases bustling with war activity, then finding its way into the civilian population, killing indiscriminately and with alarming speed. But this isn't fiction, or a dire prediction for this years flu season; its the story of Influenza 1918. It killed more Americans than all of the wars in the 20th Century combined, but faded from the collective memory almost as quickly as it spread across world. Watch "Influenza 1918," the powerful story of Americas worst health crisis.