The 1918 influenza pandemic led to the death of an estimated 50 million people around the world.
But although it was thought at the time that a disproportionate number of healthy young people died, a new study has found that there was no evidence that was the case.
“The results of our work counter the narrative and the anecdotal accounts of the time,” says McMaster anthropologist Dr Amanda Wissler.
“This paints a very complicated picture of life and death during the 1918 pandemic.”
The new paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has investigated 369 skeletons from people who died before or during the pandemic.
Although we might think of skeletons as being mostly the same, our skeletons have marks of our lives. There can be lasting changes due to poor health, which can result in shorter height, irregular growth or developmental tooth defects.
There can also be bone changes and new formation due to inflammation or infection.
The researchers looked at these bone changes in the form of ‘lesions’ on shin bones.
“By comparing who had lesions, and whether these lesions were active or healing at the time of death, we get a picture of what we call frailty, or who is more likely to die. Our study shows that people with these active lesions are the most frail,” says Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University Colorado Boulder.
They found that those who were the most ‘frail’ were also the ones who were most likely to die in the 1918 flu.
“Our circumstances – social, cultural and immunological – are all intertwined and have always shaped the life and death of people, even in the distant past,” said Wissler. “We saw this during COVID-19, where our social backgrounds and our cultural backgrounds influenced who was more likely to die, and who was likely to survive.”