Autopsy series of 68 cases dying before and during the 1918 influenza pandemic peak

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Sep 27;108(39):16416-21. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1111179108. Epub 2011 Sep 19.


The 1918 to 1919 "Spanish" influenza pandemic virus killed up to 50 million people. We report here clinical, pathological, bacteriological, and virological findings in 68 fatal American influenza/pneumonia military patients dying between May and October of 1918, a period that includes ~4 mo before the 1918 pandemic was recognized, and 2 mo (September-October 1918) during which it appeared and peaked. The lung tissues of 37 of these cases were positive for influenza viral antigens or viral RNA, including four from the prepandemic period (May-August). The prepandemic and pandemic peak cases were indistinguishable clinically and pathologically. All 68 cases had histological evidence of bacterial pneumonia, and 94% showed abundant bacteria on Gram stain. Sequence analysis of the viral hemagglutinin receptor-binding domain performed on RNA from 13 cases suggested a trend from a more "avian-like" viral receptor specificity with G222 in prepandemic cases to a more "human-like" specificity associated with D222 in pandemic peak cases. Viral antigen distribution in the respiratory tree, however, was not apparently different between prepandemic and pandemic peak cases, or between infections with viruses bearing different receptor-binding polymorphisms. The 1918 pandemic virus was circulating for at least 4 mo in the United States before it was recognized epidemiologically in September 1918. The causes of the unusually high mortality in the 1918 pandemic were not explained by the pathological and virological parameters examined. These findings have important implications for understanding the origins and evolution of pandemic influenza viruses.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Antigens, Viral / analysis
  • Autopsy*
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Influenza A virus / genetics
  • Influenza A virus / immunology
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology
  • Influenza, Human / history
  • Influenza, Human / mortality*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • RNA, Viral / analysis


  • Antigens, Viral
  • RNA, Viral

Associated data

  • GENBANK/JN620390
  • GENBANK/JN620391
  • GENBANK/JN620392
  • GENBANK/JN620393
  • GENBANK/JN620394
  • GENBANK/JN620395
  • GENBANK/JN620396
  • GENBANK/JN620397
  • GENBANK/JN620398
  • GENBANK/JN620399
  • GENBANK/JN620400
  • GENBANK/JN620401