Don Bullis

No historian who wrote about the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 failed to mention its juxtaposition with the conclusion of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

The most telling comparison is that an estimated 11 million military personnel and 7 million civilians, of all participating nations, died in that conflict between 1914 and 1918. No doubt that 18 million lost lives is a significant and tragic number.

By comparison, though, an estimated 20 million to 40 million people worldwide died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, equally significant and tragic.

The United States suffered about 116,000 combat fatalities in the war, and in the two-year period of 1918-19, 675,000 U.S. citizens died of the flu, which is more than the total number of Americans killed in all the wars fought in the 20th century.

In New Mexico, the figures are that 93 military people were killed in World War I, and as many as 5,000 New Mexicans died from the flu out of 50,000 cases. Some sources show the number as 1,000, out of a population of 360,350, per the 1920 census.

These figures are at such a variance because there was no system for record-keeping at the time. In 1918, New Mexico had only been a state of the union for six years, and it was the only state in the union that did not have a health department — any health department.

What that meant was there was no mechanism, and no personnel, available to fight the spread of the disease that ran its course from early October until early November. New Mexico Republican Gov. Octaviano A. Larrazolo (1859-1930), who served in office in 1919 and 1920, created a health department when he signed a house bill on March 15, 1919.

Historian Richard Melzer has correctly called the 1918 epidemic “a truly dark and terrible moment in New Mexico history.”

Selected sources:

• Lauren Gray, “Influenza Epidemic in New Mexico, 1918, Office of the New Mexico State Historian.

• Richard Melzer, “A Dark and Terrible Moment: The Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918,” New Mexico Historical Review, July 1983.

• Clifford M. Rees, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, “Spanish Influenza in New Mexico, 1918,” AB Health eSource, December 2005.

(Don Bullis is a Rio Rancho resident, New Mexico centennial historian and award-winning author. He was named the Best Local Author in the 2018 Rio Rancho Observer Readers’ Choice contest. “Ellos Pasaron por Aqui,” translated as “They Passed by Here,” appears on the third Sunday of the month.)