Linking 1918 Flu Pandemic to Critical Medical Discoveries

1918 Flu pandemic

In the wake of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, physician George Bradley made an accidental discovery in 1935. It was this: A stimulant medication can mitigate what we now view as ADHD symptoms. Trouble is, that wasn’t his intention. Instead, he sought to alleviate pain in hospitalized children who had survived the Spanish Flu, as it was then called.

Only a few years earlier, this influenza’s lasting physical effects on survivors was changing medical and societal perception of physical and mental illness. It eventually led to other major medical discoveries, which this four-part post series details. We are still learning about them today.

Will we see similar lasting effects from COVID-19 influenza? Medical experts say we already are.

Why This Topic?

My intention in presenting key points on this topic is not to create more anxiety around COVID-related issues.  My goals lie elsewhere:

  1. Putting to rest the often-made criticism that ADHD is a “made up” condition—hatched in a Big Pharma marketing department—when instead it happened by accident, in trying to help pediatric influenza survivors
  2. Documenting the often highly accidental nature of monumental medical discoveries in the context of pandemic
  3. Drawing connections between the aftermath of the 1918 Flu pandemic and what we might come to see in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic

Highlights—Brief Version

This is an unusually long—but I hope, interesting—look at these topics. subscribers receive three more posts after this one.  So look for that pop up box or add your address to the box in the column to right.

Each post contains key points within several highlights (the brief version here, more details below):

1. The lingering and often devastating physical effects in 1918 Flu survivors, including “the disease of criminals” in children

2. How the children’s extreme changed behavior made it clear: Issues of biology over “character” were in evidence. This was revolutionary. So was the idea that children needed neurological care.

3. Attempts to treat those physical effects paved the way to important scientific discoveries. They include penicillin and yes, that a stimulant called Benzedrine helped children who displayed what we now recognize as ADHD symptoms. And both were sheer accidents.

“Spanish” Flu’s Little-Discussed Survivors

A pandemic, as everyone knows by now, describes a worldwide epidemic. The Spanish Flu, or 1918 Flu Pandemic, remains the most well-known. (We no longer call it the Spanish Flu because it did not start in Spain and had nothing to do with  Spain. It’s a long story, involving WWII-era news blackouts everywhere but Spain.) It killed 50 million people worldwide—ten times more than died in WWI.

It’s considered history’s most deadly pandemic. It was only one, however, in a series of pandemics that preceded it over decades. They came in waves and in various forms.

One in the late 1800s took both my newly immigrated paternal great-grandparents, orphaning my grandmother (pictured), age 9.  She grew up in St. Peter’s Orphanage in Memphis. As a young teen, she was sent to work as a domestic servant. Fortunately, she was smart and a fantastic cook, with a nice personality. She married well.  Many orphans were not so lucky.

My paternal grandmother, Amelia, orphaned by a pandemic in the late 1800s

What’s often missed in the discussions about 1918 Flu? The fact that an estimated 500 million contracted the virus. That is, 10 times as many people contracted the virus as died from it.

Technically, the majority recovered—though to what extent we do not know. It might be more accurate to say  that they survived. Medical science was ill-prepared to investigate fully.  Lingering effects might have been attributed to other causes.

One thing, however, that we know for sure: Survivors in significant number were left with new and crippling illnesses. Tragically, most  had no treatment.

With much time and scientific inquiry, these illnesses led to important medical breakthroughs—and even caused medical and political authorities to re-examine what we thought we knew about “mental deficiencies.” More about that in Post 2.

Fort Riley Spanish Flu
Among the early evidence of the 1918 Flu : soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas

Longer Version: Three Influenza-Related Highlights

This topic could fill many interesting volumes. In the following three posts, I’ll distill for you only three highlights that stood out for me in the context of ADHD and other neurobiological conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease. At the end, I’ll refer you to further reading.

Post #2: 1920-1927: Encephalitis Lethargica (EL) in children

Coming on the heels of the 1918 Flu—and perhaps related to it—the pandemic of Encephalitis Lethargica wreaked a devastating effect on its victims brain functions, including the survivors.

In fact, reports say the majority of children who contracted EL manifested psychological disturbances after recovering from the acute stages of the disease. More than a third displayed behavioral disorders. Some even displayed psychopathic tendencies. For most, this tragically lasted for the rest of their lives.

Post #3: Two massive medical discoveries—ignored for years

—1928: The random landing of a dust mote in an influenza researcher’s petri dish led to discovering Penicillin. That discovery was ignored for 20 years.

—1935: An accidental discovery leads to medication treatment for what we now know as ADHD. It happened in the first psychiatric hospital for children. That hospitall was created by the grieving parents of a child who, post-Encephalitis Lethargica, suffered severe behavior symptoms as well as epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

That accidental discovery was also ignored , in this case for 85 years, despite there being no other proven treatments for these children.

Post #4: Adult Encephalitis Lethargica (EL) sufferers become “un-frozen” when given a now-common Parkinson’s medication

—1969: Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks played a role in “awakening” adult EL survivors who had for years lingered in a “ghost-like” state. He did so by targeting the neurochemical we often talk about in the context of ADHD, though by a different mechanism: dopamine.

Note that pediatric and adult EL survivors manifested very different symptoms. Some theorize this is due to children’s brains not yet being fully developed.

But First: What is Encephalitis Lethargica (EL)?

As mentioned, all three of these highlighted topics involve a condition called Encephalitis Lethargica (EL). Before continuing, let’s define it.

The term encephalitis refers to an inflammation of the brain. There are several causes. The most common, however, is a viral infection—that is, infection from a virus.

Can we make a direct connection between having 1918 Flu and developing this disease—called “the sleepy sickness” in adults and, in some children, “the disease of criminals”—with its typically lingering impairments? Several medical theories posit yes. None has been proven conclusively. One theory is that the debilitating effects of the influenza left survivors vulnerable to a type of encephalitis transmitted virally.

Back when influenza pandemics from the late 1800s to the early 1900s devastated the world, however, we knew very little about these complex factors. We did not understand that surviving the flu could change the body in ways that left an individual vulnerable to developing a new condition—and, therefore, that the two illnesses were connected.

These pandemics survivors suffered profound and novel maladies that medical science did not yet understand and could not treat. That included “behavioral” disorders such as that found with EL. The malady was so closely associated in time with the 1918 Flu  that some researchers link the two in cause.

How Might This Relate To COVID Survivors?

Will we see novel medical phenomenon in the wake of COVID? We already are, as well as some old phenomenon.

In fact, medical historians have been sounding the alarm since at least last summer (2020): We should be on the watch for permanent health changes among COVID survivors. That includes in the brain and nervous system as well as cardiovascular system.

For many of the sickest patients with COVID-19, their blood teems with high levels of immune system proteins called cytokines. Scientists see this as evidence of an immune response called a “cytokine storm”. That is where the body goes beyond fighting off the virus to attack its own cells and tissues. Cytokine storms can be triggered by cancer treatment and infections, such as the flu. One study of patients who died of the 1990s H1N1 influenza found that 81% had features of a cytokine storm. The Spanish Flu is categorized as H1N1.

How is this? The brain is an extremely delicate and vulnerable organ. Even as our immune response might keep our bodies alive, it can devastate our brain. Current research points to four likely ways in which this influenza, as with the 1918 Flu, can harm the brain:

  1. Severe infection
  2. Immune-system overdrive—producing a “maladaptive” inflammatory response that may cause much of the tissue and organ damage seen in this disease, perhaps more than the Coronavirus itself.
  3. Chaos in the body: e.g. high fevers, low oxygen levels, multiple organ failures
  4. Blood-clotting abnormalities: e.g. strokes

For  Further Reading:

On that last point, Johns Hopkins researchers uncovered the long-range impact of the 1918 Flu pandemic among the children whose mothers had the flu during those pregnancies. Effects include the increased incidence of heart disease. To read more: How Does Coronavirus Affect the Brain?

University of Southern California at Davis gerontology researcher Caleb Finch found that “even mild sickness from flu could affect fetal development with longer consequences.” To read more: Lasting Legacy of the H1N1 Flu of 1918

Also: The Deadliest Flu: The Complete Story of the Discovery and Reconstruction of the 1918 Pandemic virus

Why did Dr. Bradley even consider Benzedrine when seeking to alleviate headaches in children after a painful radiologic diagnostic procedure?  Read more about the historical use of Benzedrine:  Did Mrs. Murphy Abuse Benzedrine—Or Did She Have ADHD?

Look for Posts 2, 3, and 4 to follow.

As always, I welcome your comments.

—Gina Pera

10 thoughts on “Linking 1918 Flu Pandemic to Critical Medical Discoveries”

  1. Dear Gina,
    You have answered some family questions for me that I thought I remembered hearing about at one time in the past.

    You always research your topics thoroughly and glean so much incredible information that you share freely with your readers. We are lucky to have you do the heavy lifting and processing of educational and medical data.

    Thank you for your dedication and your determination to help others in their search for reasons and possible help for complications that occur in their lives.

    1. Thank you, my big sister Elva!

      You have supported me from the beginning, since childhood even, and always been there for me.

      Love you!


  2. Gina, Gina, Gina,

    Thank Y O U! Fascinating topic! Your summary of all this research and studying is enlightening and thought provoking!

    I’m the ADHDer diagnosed in early 50s. My gene is from my eccentric mother who was never diagnosed before her death.

    Our UNdiagnosed ADHD directly impacted our entire life in our mother-daughter relationship, marriages, careers (the wrong ones) on and on.

    After reading your article here, I’m wondering if my maternal grandmother dying at 25 with lung cancer could have possibly been related to her mother’s exposure to the 1918 pandemic.

    My questions, no doubt, are “out there” but my questions stem from your hard work and sharing your knowledge. We cannot wait for your succeeding articles! BIG virtual hug to you!

    1. Dear Crystal,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to write that. I sure don’t do this for the money. lol

      I asked my husband to read the draft (all 5,000 words of it), and he said, “Why are you working so hard on this?”

      My only answer was, “because it’s important and could be a massive public health issue in the future…and who else is writing about it?” 🙂

      In short, I am a bit of a knucklehead on a mission. lol

      That’s an interesting question about your maternal grandmother. Dying at 25. So sad.

      Stay tuned for three more posts!

      Thanks for reading — and commenting, Crystal!

  3. Thank you Gina for sharing. Very interesting subject matter and it seems in the daily news there is so much being studied about this virus and how it will impact us in the long run. Even my husband listens to the new drugs being tested. Looking forward to the next articles.

    1. Thanks for reading and writing a note, Laura.

      Initially, I just wanted to put Dr. Bradley’s discovery into the context of post-pandemic illness.

      The more I started digging, though….the more complex it got!

      take care,

  4. Very interesting topic and one I’d never think to attach to ADHD. We are just staying home all the time we can. His ADD qualities and my homebody personality and the fact I can work from home, has made the pandemic very doable for us. We are lucky people. Will look forward to your future installments.

    1. Thanks, Penny!

      Yes, Dr. Goat and I are pretty much the same way.

      Even before COVID, we were typically at home, at our desks.

      At least he doesn’t have to commute 3 days/week to SF any more. On the train.

      It would be easy to lose sight of how many people are suffering, but I don’t.

      Glad y’all are well!

  5. dear gina, that’s an intriguing topic. I also find your notes on your family history very interesting. thanks for posting!

    1. Thank you, Gert!

      It was only in the past year, in talking with my oldest (18 years older) sibling, that I learned more about the grandmother we called “Wee Nonna”.

      I have no explanation, except that maybe she was shorter than our maternal Nonna. 🙂

      My father was not one to sit around reminiscing, but when I did ask about his mother, he always talked about what a sublime baker she was — he’d get a faraway look in his eye talking about it.

      I’ve been thinking about her today, how I wish I’d known her. And I’m struck by how very much I look like her.

      She had a hard life so we could have an easier one. <3


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