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The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was caused by an experimental vaccine? A conspiracy theory I hadn’t heard of before…

In this installment of Conspiracy Theory Bingo, Kevin Barry blames the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 on an experimental vaccine. Yes, Mr. Barry lets the conspiracy mongering and antivaccine tropes flow as he “investigates” the influenza pandemic of 1918. Being the antivaccine crank that he is, he concludes that the influenza virus didn’t cause the disease that killed over 50 million people a hundred years ago. No! It was—of course—an experimental meningitis vaccine that caused bacterial pneumonia in Army recruits. Let’s just say that there are numerous holes in Barry’s claims.

It’s been a hundred years since the beginning of the great influenza pandemic of 1918. It was truly a monumental and horrific pandemic, lasting two years, infecting a half a billion people, and killing at least 50 million people worldwide, roughly 700,000 in the US, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. Known colloquially as the “Spanish flu,” the strain of influenza responsible for the pandemic was an H1N1 virus. The CDC notes that the pandemic was so severe that from 1917 to 1918, life expectancy in the United States fell by about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women, also noting that there were high death rates in previously healthy people, including those between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, which was unusual because influenza typically attacks the very young and the very old more than it does young adults.

Not surprisingly, such a monumental loss of life due to influenza is an “inconvenient” fact of history to antivaxers who don’t like the flu vaccine and argue that the flu is not a serious disease. Not surprisingly, they do everything they can to downplay the role of the influenza virus and blame those tens of millions of deaths on something other than the Spanish Flu. Alternatively, there are the oft-cited claims (by homeopaths) that homeopaths were much more successful at treating the flu during the pandemic than conventional doctors, a claim that is utter nonsense, but sure did pop up a lot during the last H1N1 pandemic in 2009, and that natural is better when it comes to influenza. After 2009, I thought I had heard all the Spanish Flu pandemic myths and conspiracy theories, but I was wrong.

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918: Not due to the influenza virus?

There is, however, one claim, one conspiracy theory, about the 1918 influenza pandemic that I had never heard before, or, if I had heard it, failed to remember it and have never blogged about it as far as I can tell. It’s a claim I learned bout when I got up earlier than usual this morning to be greeted with a post on that wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery, Age of Autism (AoA). It’s by Kevin Barry, a lawyer who’s helped promote the quacktastic “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory. Apparently now he’s running something called First Freedoms, Inc., which advertises itself as being about “human rights, civil rights, and religious freedoms,” but, upon closer inspection, appears to be mostly about “vaccine freedom,” or the “freedom” for antivaxers to refuse vaccinations for their children. If you look at its menu (and look at your peril, as the website appears to have a misconfigured security certificate that will produce an warning message in your browser—the things I do for my readers!), you’ll see that it’s about the Italian “human rights” complaint about vaccines, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory, the challenge to the law banning nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates in California, and the like. In any case, Barry’s article is entitled Did A Vaccine Experiment on US Soldiers Cause “The Spanish Flu” Epidemic?

I had two questions upon reading that title. First, how is it that I haven’t heard of or don’t remember this conspiracy theory before? Second, Betteridge’s law of headlines surely applies here. In any event, the AoA link only has the first half of Barry’s quacktastic post; the rest can be found on his First Freedoms, Inc. website (, again, go there at your peril and only if you know what you’re doing). I’ll quote liberally as needed from the section on the actual website.

The article starts with this question:

The “Spanish Flu” killed an estimated 50-100 million people during a pandemic 1918-19. What if the story we have been told about this pandemic isn’t true? What if, instead, the killer infection was neither the flu nor Spanish in origin? Newly analyzed documents reveal that the “Spanish Flu” may have been a military vaccine experiment gone awry. In looking back on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, we need to delve deeper to solve this mystery.

No. Actually we don’t. This is utter nonsense. But it’s nonsense that’s useful to unpack, because to those not versed in influenza and the history of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, it can sound plausible, convincing even. Let’s take at the absolute dumbest bit of the conspiracy theory first. It’s not the first thing that Barry mentions. Perhaps he realizes that it’s so dumb that only true believers would accept it as the opening gambit and that it could only sound even partially plausible after other elements of the conspiracy theory were woven. First, he starts with something that is factual, but presented…oddly:

While watching an episode of American Experience on PBS a few months ago, I was surprised to hear that the first cases of “Spanish Flu” occurred at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918. I thought, how is it possible this historically important event could be so badly misnamed 100 years ago and never corrected?

Why “Spanish”? Spain was one of a few countries not involved in World War I. Most of the countries involved in the war censored their press. Free from censorship concerns, the earliest press reports of people dying from disease in large numbers came from Spain. The warring countries did not want to additionally frighten the troops, so they were content to scapegoat Spain. Soldiers on all sides would be asked to cross no man’s land into machine gun fire, which was frightening enough without knowing that the trenches were a disease breeding ground.

This is more or less correct. The pandemic started as World War I was entering its final phases. You can even go to Wikipedia and it will tell you that wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Papers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, including the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII. This selective reporting created a false impression of Spain as having been especially hard hit, thereby giving rise to the pandemic’s nickname, “Spanish Flu”. If you don’t trust Wikipedia, here’s a good timeline from Popular Mechanics:

Though dubbed the Spanish flu, after millions of early deaths in Spain, the geographic origin of the disease remains unknown. Some hypothesize that it may have been circulating around the world for a few years before developing into a pandemic in 1918. The first confirmed outbreak in the United States, if not the world, was at an army base in northeastern Kansas on March 11, 1918. Just hours after the first soldier reported sick, dozens more began pouring into the infirmary. By the end of the day, hundreds of soldiers had fallen ill. Within a week 500 had come down with the fever.

The flu quickly spread across the country, where 2 million troops were mobilizing for the war in Europe. The soldiers carried the flu with them when they shipped out, introducing the virus to France, England, Germany and Spain. “King George’s Grand Fleet could not even put to sea for three weeks in May, with 10,313 men sick,” reports Gina Kolata in her book Flu. The virus jumped to China, India, Japan and the rest of Asia. By summer it seemed to have played itself out.

Other sources note that the disease appears to have been circulating in Europe as early as 1917. In any event, what is described above was the first wave. Beginning in September, there was a second wave that appeared at Camp Devens, a US Army training camp near Boston, and at a naval base in Boston. This wave was worse than the first peaking from September through November and killing over 100,000 Americans in October alone. The third and final wave began in early 1919 but, while serious, wasn’t as lethal as the second wave. In the US at least, the pandemic finally subsided in the summer of 1919.

Of course, to Barry the reason that the Spanish Flu is still often called the Spanish Flu has more to do with the powers-that-be misleading the sheeple as to the true cause of the disease:

It is possible that one of the reasons the Spanish Flu has never been corrected is that it helps disguise the origin of the pandemic. If the origin of the pandemic involved a vaccine experiment on US soldiers, then the US may prefer calling it Spanish Flu instead of The Fort Riley Bacteria of 1918, or something similar. The Spanish Flu started at the location this experimental bacterial vaccine was given making it the prime suspect as the source of the bacterial infections which killed so many.

It would be much more difficult to maintain the marketing mantra of “vaccines save lives” if a vaccine experiment originating in the United States during the years of primitive manufacturing caused the deaths of 50-100 million people.

“Vaccines save lives … except we may have killed 50-100 million people in 1918-19” is a far less effective sales slogan than the overly simplistic “vaccines save lives.”

This, of course, brings us to Kevin Barry’s conspiracy theory, which is that a vaccine for meningitis being tested at the time was the real cause of the pandemic disease (which, he claims, was not influenza, much less the H1N1 strain) that swept through the world and killed tens of millions in less than two years. Before Barry really gets going with his conspiracy theory, he trots out several of the usual antivaccine tropes, such as the the claim that mortality was decreasing from various vaccine-preventable diseases, thanks to clean water and sanitation. Of course, no one, least of all public health officials, downplays the importance of sanitation and clean, potable water in reducing the incidence of a number of diseases. For preventing the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera, for instance, clean water is essential. But many other vaccine-preventable diseases have little to do with sanitation. Measles, for instance, is primarily spread through air droplets from the respiration and coughing of infected individuals and is incredibly contagious. Only a vaccine can effectively block the spread of measles through a population.

Spanish Flu: Of course it had to be a vaccine!

Let’s delve into Barry’s conspiracy theory further, where first he asserts that the disease that killed so many was not the flu or a virus, but bacterial. Adding to that, Barry next dives into a vat of burning stupid so intense and deep that we’d better hope that global warming doesn’t cause its levels to rise any more than they already have:

Capitalizing on the “flu” part of Spanish flu helped vaccine manufacturers procure billion dollar checks from governments, even though scientists knew at the time that bacterial pneumonia was the real killer. It is not my opinion that bacterial pneumonia was the real killer – thousands of autopsies confirm this fact. According to a 2008 National Institute of Health paper, bacterial pneumonia was the killer in a minimum of 92.7% of the 1918-19 autopsies reviewed. It is likely higher than 92.7%. The researchers looked at more than 9000 autopsies, and “there were no negative (bacterial) lung culture results”.

“… In the 68 higher-quality autopsy series, in which the possibility of unreported negative cultures could be excluded, 92.7% of autopsy lung cultures were positive for ≥1 bacterium. … in one study of approximately 9000 subjects who were followed from clinical presentation with influenza to resolution or autopsy, researchers obtained, with sterile technique, cultures of either pneumococci or streptococci from 164 of 167 lung tissue samples. There were 89 pure cultures of pneumococci; 19 cultures from which only streptococci were recovered; 34 that yielded mixtures of pneumococci and/or streptococci; 22 that yielded a mixture of pneumococci, streptococci, and other organisms (prominently pneumococci and nonhemolytic streptococci); and 3 that yielded nonhemolytic streptococci alone. There were no negative lung culture results.” (3)

Pneumococci or streptococci were found in “164 of (the) 167 lung tissue samples” autopsied. That is 98.2%. Bacteria was the killer.

Barry seems unaware that bacterial pneumonia is often the secondary cause of death in influenza; indeed, the majority of individuals who died of influenza during the pandemic succumbed to secondary bacterial infection with Streptococcus pneumoniae, Streptococcus pyogenes, H. influenzae, Staphylococcus aureus, and other organisms That’s because influenza weakens the lung’s defenses against pathogenic bacteria, which then superinfect the lungs, leading to pneumonia. Indeed, scientists have pointed out many times that bacterial pneumonia complicating influenza is a well-recognized severe manifestation of influenza and that it counted for many deaths in the 1918 influenza pandemic.

In any event, this particular review of the subject notes that in the 1918 pandemic:

Experts now support the sequential infection hypothesis and believe that bacteria were secondary invaders to pulmonary tissues weakened by the influenza virus. They suggest that the scale and range of bacterial invaders was random, and in the case of large group outbreaks, depended on the occurrence of particular bacteria in the respiratory tract of persons at the time of infection and on their occurrence in contacts. The fatal outcome of influenza pneumonia was therefore determined partly by virally depressed local and general pulmonary resistance and partly by the virulence and nature of the invading bacteria. Brundage explains the high transmission rates in military camps and other crowded settings as due to ‘cloud adults’ – affected persons who increased the aerosolisation of colonising strains of bacteria to other susceptible persons. Military personnel were deemed to be highly susceptible because of their closed community style living and their physically weakened state. In American civilian populations, attack rates and deaths were similar among younger adults and overall were approximately 28% for influenza with 30% of associated pneumonias being fatal.

Also remember that, at the time, it was not yet known which organism caused influenza, as the flu virus wouldn’t be identified until 1933. However, influenza had a distinct clinical course that allowed doctors to identify it with high accuracy in infected individuals, and it’s not as though nothing was known about influenza even 100 years ago. Quite a bit was. Indeed, by the end of 1918, scientists had discovered that influenza was not due to a strain of bacteria, as physician/bacteriologist Richard Friedrich Johannes Pfeiffer had reported two decades prior, but likely to viruses. They did this using the technique of the day, which involved filtering sputum from infected individuals with filters small enough to exclude bacteria but allow smaller viruses to pass and then testing that fluid by infecting volunteers. (Yes, that’s how they did it.) Also, in 2005 the 1918 virus was identified from old clinical samples and completely sequenced.

So where do vaccines come into this conspiracy theory? Barry is more than happy to elaborate:

When the United States declared war in April 1917, the fledgling Pharmaceutical industry had something they had never had before – a large supply of human test subjects in the form of the US military’s first draft. Pre-war in 1917, the US Army was 286,000 men. Post-war in 1920, the US army disbanded, and had 296,000 men. During the war years 1918-19, the US Army ballooned to 6,000,000 men, with 2,000,000 men being sent overseas. The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research took advantage of this new pool of human guinea pigs to conduct vaccine experiments.


Between January 21st and June 4th of 1918, Dr. Gates reports on an experiment where soldiers were given 3 doses of a bacterial meningitis vaccine. Those conducting the experiment on the soldiers were just spitballing dosages of a vaccine serum made in horses.

The vaccination regime was designed to be 3 doses. 4,792 men received the first dose, but only 4,257 got the 2nd dose (down 11%), and only 3702 received all three doses (down 22.7%). A total of 1,090 men were not there for the 3rd dose. What happened to these soldiers? Were they shipped East by train from Kansas to board a ship to Europe? Were they in the Fort Riley hospital? Dr. Gates’ report doesn’t tell us.

An article accompanying the American Experience broadcast I watched sheds some light on where these 1,090 men might be. Gates began his experiments in January 1918. By March of that year, “100 men a day” were entering the infirmary at Fort Riley. Are some of these the men missing from Dr. Gates’ report – the ones who did not get the 2nd or 3rd dose?

“… Shortly before breakfast on Monday, March 11, the first domino would fall signaling the commencement of the first wave of the 1918 influenza. Company cook Albert Gitchell reported to the camp infirmary with complaints of a “bad cold.” Right behind him came Corporal Lee W. Drake voicing similar complaints. By noon, camp surgeon Edward R. Schreiner had over 100 sick men on his hands, all apparently suffering from the same malady…” (5)

Gates does report that several of the men in the experiment had flu-like symptoms: coughs, vomiting and diarrhea after receiving the vaccine. These symptoms are a disaster for men living in barracks, travelling on trains to the Atlantic coast, sailing to Europe, and living and fighting in trenches. The unsanitary conditions at each step of the journey are an ideal environment for a contagious disease like bacterial pneumonia to spread.

Holy confusing correlation with causation, Batman! Yes, it was in March when the “Spanish Flu” first hit the recruits in Fort Riley. So why didn’t it start to happen in late January, when this vaccine was first administered, if the vaccine was the cause of the disease? Did it also ever occur to Barry that the reason the soldiers who didn’t get their second and third course of the vaccination became ill was because that was right when the flu was roaring through the barracks at Fort Riley and interrupting their receiving another dose of vaccine?

But, you say, what about all the outbreaks in Europe? Even if Barry’s fantastical conspiracy theory were true, this would only account for how the “Spanish Flu” disease arose in the US and spread through the military rapidly, before making the jump to the civilian population. Of course, Barry has an explanation:

The United States was not the only country in possession of the Rockefeller Institute’s experimental bacterial vaccine. A 1919 report from the Institute states: “Reference should be made that before the United States entered the war (in April 1917) the Institute had resumed the preparation of antimeningococcic serum, in order to meet the requests of England, France, Belgium Italy and other countries.” The same report states: “In order to meet the suddenly increased demand for the curative serums worked out at the Institute, a special stable for horses was quickly erected …” (8)

Yep. Conveniently enough, an antimeningococcal serum was being sent to Europe. Of course, I can’t help but note that this was a serum raised in horses and was thus not a vaccine. Barry can’t even tell the difference between a serum and a vaccine!. As for the experimental meningococcal vaccine itself, the paper to which Barry refers (and whose experiments the scientifically clueless Barry describes as “careless”) shows quite clearly that the serum used for the vaccine was heated to 65°C for 30 minutes to kill the bacteria and inactivate the autolytic ferment, noting that “this temperature does not impair the antigenic properties of the organism and the intact cocci are less toxic than their autolyzed products. In other words, unless these scientists were utterly incompetent, there’s no way for there to have been living bacteria in the serum. Even if there were, it’s unlikely that every lot would have living bacteria in it. Barry also conveniently forgets that several species of bacteria were associated with secondary bacterial pneumonia complicating influenza, with meningococci being fairly uncommon. Heck, the very reference that Barry cited regarding secondary bacterial infections in the context of the flu didn’t even mention meningococcus!

Add to that American troops arriving in the trenches and living in cramped quarters with close contact with each other (or so Barry continues to argue), and you have the perfect environment for influenza to spread. It’s just that Barry argues that it’s also the perfect environment for bacterial pneumonia to spread, which is true but rather irrelevant. Doctors knew enough at the time to figure out by early 1919 at the latest that it wasn’t bacterial pneumonia causing the pandemic, and, even if they hadn’t, we now know enough about influenza from further studies, later pandemics, and from sequencing the damned genome of the influenza virus responsible for the Spanish Flu pandemic that it was the H1N1 strain of influenza virus that caused the pandemic. Barry is, quite simply, so wrong that he’s not even wrong.

Conspiracy piled on conspiracy

As I neared the end of his epic bit of conspiracy mongering, Barry actually made me laugh out loud at his nonsensical silliness as I read the final passages of his take. Let’s unpack his last few claims:

In 1918-19, the vaccine industry experimented on soldiers, likely with disastrous results. In 2018, the vaccine industry experiments on infants every day. The vaccine schedule has never been tested as it is given. The results of the experiment are in: 1 in 7 American children is in some form of special education and over 50% have some form of chronic illness. (12)

Yes, the vaccine industry used soldiers as experimental subjects for vaccines in 1918. No, the results were not disastrous, as the vaccine did not cause the Spanish Flu, no matter how much Barry might want to argue otherwise. Note his pivot, though, to falsely represent the current vaccine schedule, which is evidence-based, with experimentation on soldiers 100 years ago, and to falsely link that “experimentation” to an “epidemic” of neurodevelopmental disorders and chronic illness, a standard antivax trope.

In 1918-19, there was no safety follow up after vaccines were delivered. In 2018, there is virtually no safety follow up after a vaccine is delivered. Who exactly gave you that flu shot at Rite Aid? Do you have their cell number of the store employee if something goes wrong?

This is, of course, a fetid load of dingo’s kidneys. There are both passive and active surveillance systems to detect adverse events due to vaccines, as I’ve discussed many times. Many states have systems that require anyone administering a vaccine to record it in a state database. Michigan has one.

Next up:

1n 1918-19, there was no liability to the manufacturer for injuries or death caused by vaccines. In 2018, there is no liability for vaccine manufacturers for injuries or death caused by vaccines, which was formalized in 1986. (13)

This is an even more fetid load of dingo’s kidneys. It’s also rather silly. After all, he’s claiming that “no liability” for vaccine manufacturers was formalized in 1986 with the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act but that before that there was no liability. Neither are true. All the NCVIA did was require that those who think they are victims of vaccine injury use a special Vaccine Court first. They can still sue in federal court if they are unsuccessful in obtaining compensation from the Vaccine Court.

Next up:

In 1918-19, there was no independent investigative follow up challenging the official story that “Spanish Flu” was some mystery illness which dropped from the sky. I suspect that many of those at the Rockefeller Institute knew what happened, and that many of the doctors who administered the vaccines to the troops knew what happened, but those people are long dead. In 2018, the Pharmaceutical industry is the largest campaign donor to politicians and the largest advertiser in all forms of media, so not much has changed over 100 years. This story will likely be ignored by mainstream media because their salaries are paid by pharmaceutical advertising.

This is paranoid conspiracy mongering at its most loony. Start with the strawman that the “Spanish Flu” was some mystery illness that dropped from the sky. It might have felt that way when the flu first hit in 1918, but there has been a century of investigation since then, including the identification sequencing of the H1N1 influenza virus responsible for the 1918 pandemic. The reason Barry’s “story” is being ignored by mainstream media is that the media tend to recognize a crackpot when they see one.


The next time you hear someone say “vaccines save lives” please remember that the true story of the cost/benefit of vaccines is much more complicated than their three word slogan. Also remember that vaccines may have killed 50-100 million people in 1918-19. If true, those costs greatly outweighed any benefit, especially considering that plumbers, electricians, sandhogs and engineers did, and continue to do, the real work which reduces mortality from disease.

No, no, no, no, no. Vaccines did not kill 50-100 million people a hundred years ago. As I’ve explained above, Barry is peddling a truly quacky conspiracy theory in the service of his antivaccine beliefs. No one is denying that sanitation and clean water contribute greatly to public health. However, vaccines also contribute mightily and are arguably the single greatest public health intervention that has saved the greatest number of human lives of any medical or public health intervention. Barry is nothing more than an antivaccine conspiracy crank.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

85 replies on “The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 was caused by an experimental vaccine? A conspiracy theory I hadn’t heard of before…”

Eh, aspirin’s a better bad guy than “experimental vaccines.” In that version of the myth, at least you have recognition that there was a contagious disease outbreak–you just posit that all of the deaths were due to aspirin overdose, and indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few were.

My granduncle was a pharmacist at the time of the pandemic. There was a widespread belief that the flu was caused by the Germans, which had some plausibility because the Germans had spread glanders, a bacterial disease that principally affects horses, in Romania to cripple their army (At that time nearly all military transport depended on horses.).
At that time, aspirin was Aspirin, a trademarked product of Bayer AG, a German firm. It was the only widely available drug to combat fever, but the German connection made it distrusted. It’s more likely that people died unnecessarily due to fever that aspirin (or Aspirin) could have helped.

” the Rockefeller Institute”….

Always the Rockefellers
Was this before or after the Rockerfellers/ aka the petrochemical industry aka Pharma destroyed the highly effective schools of homeopathy and natural hygiene and their practitioners? **
I guess after.

( -btw- in the last few years, because my cousin researched our family, I learned that my father’s parents- as well as my mother’s- lost a young child in the epidemic )

** as they recount history in woo-world

I’ve seen a “flu vaccine” mentioned as the reason for the high mortality of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic but never an experimental meningitis vaccine. Let’s face it, they will stop at nothing and no conspiracy theory is too kooky for them to believe. The small coterie of AoA critters will latch onto this but hopefully, won’t gain any traction since anyone referencing Barry will get mocked mercilessly.

The “improved sanitation and hygiene” trope is easy to rebut. First, since sanitation and hygiene never progresses equally throughout the world, and sometimes regresses, then there should be a recrudescence of smallpox and other preventable diseases where it fails. I doubt that sanitation and hygiene had improved so much in Somalia and Bangladesh in the 1970s that smallpox just coincidentally disappeared concurrent with a massive vaccination effort.
Second, and a similar point, the second disease eradicated by vaccination was rinderpest, a cattle disease that had its last pockets in India and East Africa. If you want to believe that sanitation and hygiene for Third World cattle was greatly improved enough to cause it to disappear just at the same time as vaccination campaigns were well underway, good luck. You will probably also convince yourself that black is white and die in a crosswalk.

Adding to that: If you look at polio incidence, you see a drop of orders of magnitude within a few years after introduction of the vaccine, yet the question to antivaxxers what measure of improved sanitation was rolled out that quickly and that universally in this time frame is usually met with deafening silence. is a quite concentrated source for those numbers.

Beyond the fact that bacterial superinfection back in 1918-19 (and to some extent now) is a known cause of mortality from influenza, I’m suspicious of WWI-era autopsy reports supposedly documenting bacterial infection.

It’s difficult enough now to prevent contamination from autopsy cultures giving spurious results – I can only imagine the limitations of what passed for sterile technique in the WWI era.

Not surprising that the AoA crowd would leap on Barry’s goofy conspiracy theory. They live in fear that widespread outbreaks of disease like pandemic flu will strengthen demand for immunization and further upset their antivax rotten apple cart.

LOL! So true. Imagine if smallpox or polio came back, and people were standing in lines to get vaccinated, and then it worked and they didn’t get ill, while the unvaccinated did. Oops.

one of the reasons the Spanish Flu has never been corrected

Passive Voice is useful there. It spares the casual reader from wondering, “Who should have corrected the popular name? Who are these shadowy Masters of Truth, with the power to stop people using a misleading term and adopt a more correct term instead, if only they chose to use it?”

Barry’s poorly-expressed idea that the Powers should have corrected the term “Spanish Flu”, but left it in circulation because Conspiracy, tells us all we need to know about his mode of cognition.

Orac writes,

That’s because influenza weakens the lung’s defenses against pathogenic bacteria, which then superinfect the lungs, leading to pneumonia.

MJD says,

Alternatively, I’ve proposed that certain vaccine contaminants can hyperactivate the immune system to inadvertently recognize beneficial homologous-endogenous/exogenous proteins as antigens, which then causes atopy, leading to allergy-induced regressive autism.

@ Orac,

Post is well written and a great read, thanks!

Yeah. You’ve “proposed” a great many dubious arguments about how vaccinesmight just cause harm. And then, when you’ve been called on your stupidity, you’ve disingenuously called yourself a “vaccine safety adovcate”. This is exactly what antivaxxers do. They “hypothesise” all sorts of theoretical harms caused by vaccines and JAQ Off, only to declare themselves “pro safe vaccine”.
Michael, you are an antivaxxer, and I’d respect you more (but not a lot more) if you simply owned it.

You can propose any alternative your imagination comes up with. I’ll stick with the science and the evidence we have is quite compelling.

Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH writes,

You can propose any alternative your imagination comes up with.

MJD says,

I propose that Orac, for the first time in fourteen (14) years, offers a vaccine safety advocate (e.g., Vinu Arumugham) the opportunity to write a guest post for RI.

Vinu Arumugham is always a great read!

I propose that Orac, for the first time in fourteen (14) years, offers a vaccine safety advocate (e.g., Vinu Arumugham) the opportunity to write a guest post for RI.

You are being unfair. Vinu’s nonsense would be mocked from pillar to post, just like it always is. He invariably links to it in every post he makes. We don’t need it here as well.

I have a better idea. Why don’t you and Vinu set up a blog together where you can write your nonsense to your heart’s content?

And by vaccine safety advocate, you really mean anti-vaxxer.

“Between January 21st and June 4th of 1918, Dr. Gates reports on an experiment where soldiers were given 3 doses of a bacterial meningitis vaccine.”

Dr Gates spent the period Jan 21st to June 4th of 1918 reporting on an experiment? What?

“Those conducting the experiment on the soldiers were just spitballing dosages of a vaccine serum made in horses.”

Without exposing myself to Barry’s stupidity in the original un-Orac-shielded version, I am guessing that this was his source:
Suffice to say that the serum was not “made in horses”, but rather by culturing meningococci “on 1 per
cent glucose agar in Blake bottles” (then heating to kill the bacteria, as Orac noted). Gates explains, in some detail, the rationale for testing different dosages and booster-shot regimes to find the best balance between side-effects and immune response… or in Barry’s words, “spitballed”. Barry appears to be an ignorant dipstick.

Anyways, my point is that doctors were quite familiar with meningococcal disease (which is why they wanted a vaccine), they had multiple ways to test for it and distinguish different strains… but this pumpkin-head thinks that the entire world experienced an epidemic of meningitis and universally misdiagnosed it as influenza. My gob is struck.

An interesting hypothesis to explain the unusual mortality among young people (peak mortality age around 28) is that exposure to the 1890 Russian flu (H3Nx) pandemic at a young age predisposed these individuals to a pathological immune response to the Spanish flu strain (H1N1).
So not as sexy as a conspiracy coverup but it does involve Russia, so maybe…

Interesting hypothesis. I downloaded and read the articles. Only flaw is that the 1918 Pandemic flu came in three waves. The first wave more deaths than normal flu seasons; but not even close to the high number of deaths during the second wave. They explain the first wave not being all that deadly and the second wave because different virus strain. And the third wave was less deadly than the second. Yep, the virus probably mutated; but the explanation that fits best for explaining that it was the young who died at highest rates is that their immune systems were at their peak and, as with Hanta virus in 1993, resulted in cytokine storms, i.e., acute respiratory disease syndrome. Keep in mind that those alive in 1890s who had been exposed to earlier flu outbreaks, mainly older, survived and late teenagers died. Those 18 and younger weren’t even alive during 1890s.

Conveniently enough, an antimeningococcal serum was being sent to Europe. Of course, I can’t help but note that this was a killed bacterial serum.

The “antimeningococcal serum” prepared at the Rockefeller Institute for European use was prepared using horses, i.e. it consisted of antibodies from horses injected with the bacteria. Gates is quite clear that the killed-bacteria treatment trialed at Fort Riley was a vaccine, and when he writes about “serum”, he is talking about either the blood plasma of the volunteers, or the horse-derived antibody concentrate (used to test for meningococcus).

Barry cannot tell the difference between “serum” and “vaccine” (or it serves his purpose to efface it), but I suppose we should make the effort to distinguish them.

Wow. For stories such as this “burning stupid” to describe them just seems inadequate. Galactically stupid, or thermonuclear stupid anyone?

When learning of stories like this I once toyed (during a long flight) with a scoring system for, well, stupid anti-vaccine tropes (to be used in vaccine talks). I planned to rank them from stupid to stupidest. Instead I now just pick the stupidest which for me has been “vaccines cause shaken baby syndrome”. It’s been an effective example because audiences understand that there isn’t any reasoning with folks that believe an antigen can cause radiographic evidence of traumatic bone fractures. After today’s post I’ll be using “experimental vaccine caused Spanish Flu epidemic” as the stupidest anti-vaccine trope I’ve heard. It’ll include an explanation that it wasn’t even a vaccine (as noted by Smut Clyde it was anti-serum) and the military was so intelligent they developed the “vaccine” before any scientists knew what causes influenza.

Good thing that Mr Barry made it through law school because I don’t think he could have made a living as a historian…

“A total of 1,090 men were not there for the 3rd dose. What happened to these soldiers? Were they shipped East by train from Kansas to board a ship to Europe? Were they in the Fort Riley hospital? Dr. Gates’ report doesn’t tell us.”

Gates writes that “…up to June 4, 1918 […] the 89th Division remained in camp”. Which is to say, they were not “shipped East from Kansas to board a ship to Europe”. I mean, no-one expects Barry to find or read any of the copious Military Histories that would provide such information, for he is merely a historian; but one might at least expect him to read the feckin’ paper. Until one remembers that he’s writing for AoA.

Simple answer, Gates didn’t know, because these were volunteers. I know, you are thinking ” ‘volunteer’ does not have the usual definition in a military setting”, but in this case, the treatment was purely voluntary, and only 19% accepted it.

the vaccine was offered by the Division Surgeon to the camp at large, and given by the regimental surgeons to all who wished to take it.”
“On the basis of these findings the vaccine was offered to the camp at large.

If soldiers didn’t come back for a second or third dose, they didn’t have to give a reason.

“he is merely a historian”

You really are too kind to Mr Barry. Does a lawyer really need to be reminded to actually read a reference source? A high school history student preparing a term paper would be held to a higher standard for accuracy and reference checking than he provides with this execrable offering.

I love it.
It has me imagining a lava flow of molten stupidity destroying all facts and logic in its deadly path…

I have a weakness for alliterations (I have mockingly referred to the stupidest anti-vaccine tropes as winning the Plotkin Prize or the Jenner Jewel). I had to look up ignimbrite and my interpretation is that an ignmibriite of ignorance is an excellent description of what happens when a novel pyroclastically stupid claim ages into a permanent trope that remains on anti-vaccine websites forever…

After further review, the ruling of dibs conferred for “ignorambrite” is confirmed. While sad that a terrific alliteration had to be sacrificed it is acknowledged that “ignorambrite” is an apt compound word describing those that lurk on this site contributing nothing but stupid anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Well played Smut, well played.

For stories such as this “burning stupid” to describe them just seems inadequate. Galactically stupid, or thermonuclear stupid anyone?

Try to work in coronal mass ejections.

An iatrogenic origin for Vinu cannot be ruled out. I am not convinced that such an egregious combination of stupidity and self-promotion could have arisen by chance.

If you want to write history cite sources.
Everyone can tell flu from dengue, bleeding is infamous. So Spanish flu was not dengue-like.
Dengue virus lives inside white blood cells and immune system reaction causes cytokine storm. Flu virus requires genetic change to be able to penetrate white blood cells.

So, you crawled out from under your rock again. No, can’t rule out iatrogenic origin and can’t rule out microbes from an asteroid that hit Earth or, how about . . . What a stupid statement. I can’t prove that somewhere on the planet Earth some strange confluence of cosmic forces cancel gravity. And since it is impossible that every square inch of Earth has been trampled on, I guess we just have to accept that gravity may not be a universal law??? Or since some people believe in alien abduction and experimentation, can’t rule out intentionally begun as an alien experiment. I’m sure you are far more imaginative than me, so please add another “possibility.”

You probably don’t deserve a reply, but a little knowledge of history/humanity would have strangled your “hypothesis” in its crib. In 1918, the First World War was in it’s fourth year.Europe was generally devastated or deprived, even the neutrals. With a few exceptions, the remainder of the planet was poor, rural, uneducated, and had little contact with the world outside their communities.This was less common in the developed countries but was not rare, either. For most of the world, access to newly-developed medications would have been limited, to say the least. Parasitic infection was not equally distributed across the globe, but the flu killed in regions both affected and not by parasitic diseases.
On the other hand, it would have taken contact with very few infected people from the outside to spread influenza in a population.

I had a little birdie,
And it’s name was Enza.
I opened up the window,
And in flew Enza!

(To the rhythm of a jump-rope song.)

I think he is almost as credible as Mercedes Lackey’s version, under which an Earth Elemental infected those soldiers and caused the pandemic.

Her story, however, is more colorful and has better characters and a larger plot.

That was a far better explanation, because at least that still used a virus! (Totally OT, but have you read the latest in that series? So much fun!)

Google Scholar returned these:
hpv vaccine phase ii 38200 hits
hpv vaccine phase iii 32400 hits.
hpv vaccinue post licensure 7450 hitsB
Assuredly, vaccines are tested and their safety monitored. AgeofAutism promotes Big Lie.

A while back an article on Age of Autism stated: “There has never been a placebo-based randomized trial of vaccines, I repeat NEVER.” I submitted a comment describing several. They didn’t post it. Duh, wonder why?

@ Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH:

Well, according to woo-meisters/ anti-vaxxers, there have never been any TRUE placebos used in vaccine trials:
a TRUE placebo would be simply a saline solution.
Those so-called vaccine scientists** use older vaccines- compleat with adjuvants, viruses, monkey kidney cells, pus, formaldehyde. heavy metals etc as placebos to test against the newer ( usually more dangerous formula)**.

Thus allows them to lie** about how vaccines are NOT harmful since both groups of subjects get vaccines so both are damaged**.

-btw- I haven’t seen your comments lately at Jake’s place.

** sarcasm

Thank you for tearing wide the many holes in this tenuous conspiracy theory. Sadly, I’m sure I’ll hear someone in clinic tell me this is why they won’t do a flu shot any day now.

“An iatrogenic origin for Vinu cannot be ruled out. I am not convinced that such an egregious combination of stupidity and self-promotion could have arisen by chance.”

You overlook the possibility of creation through genetic modification technology, or perhaps just too much alcohol in his blood-surrogate.

“You overlook the possibility of creation through genetic modification technology, or perhaps just too much alcohol in his blood-surrogate.”
You overlook another possibility. Evolution doesn’t always occur in one direction.

Just to be a bit pedantic. The 1918 Pandemic, according to some, began in the hospital at Camp Funston, a training camp located in Fort Riley. Another possibility: “Although the USA once claimed the dubious honour of being the seat of the ‘Spanish ‘Flu’ pandemic, with an outbreak in March 1918 at Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas, new research supports the theory that the disease originated at the British army bases of Etaples and Aldershot.” These were port cities where troops and equipment unloaded during World War 1.

In either case, the original outbreak wasn’t a major killer; however, a few months later, it was, probably some small mutation. My reading is that most deaths were caused by Acute Respiratory Disease Syndrome (they called it prurilent bronchitis). Young people literally died within a day of symptoms. Many also died from opportunistic secondary bacterial pneumonias and some, probably, from viral pneumonia.

Jeffrey Taubenberger at US Military Research Institute actually sequenced the virus, found in lung tissue samples preserved in wax from those who died. It was definitely a H1N1 influenza virus.

In about 1972 exhumations of Inuit who died in the 1918 pandemic and had been buried in permafrost were done. It took a decade to sequence the entire genome, and it appears to have been somewhat like the H5N1 strain. Mice were tested with the reconstructed virus with mice infected with H1N1 virus as a control. The 1918 strain was something like 100 times as likely to kill than the H1N1 it was tested against.
My recall of this is pretty clear because the lecture I attended on this was particularly well-organized and well-presented, and I still have my notes.

From ANN H. REID*, THOMAS G. FANNING, JOHAN V. HULTIN, AND JEFFERY K. TAUBENBERGER (1999 Feb). Origin and evolution of the 1918 ‘‘Spanish’’ influenza virus hemagglutinin gene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; Vol. 96.

“Autopsy cases of 78 victims of the lethal fall wave of the 1918 pandemic were examined for this study. Evidence from 74 victims consisted of formalin-fixed, paraffin- embedded tissues, stained slides, and clinical records from the files of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

The first patient was a 21-year-old male stationed at Ft. Jackson, SC.

Formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded right lung tissue was positive for influenza RNA [A􏰀South Carolina􏰀1􏰀18 (H1N1)] as reported.

The second patient was a 30-year-old male stationed at Camp Upton, NY.

Formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded lung tissue was positive for influenza RNA [A􏰀New York􏰀1􏰀18 (H1N1)]. RNA templates larger than 150 nucleotides could not be amplified in these two case.

An additional 1918 influenza case was found by examining lung tissue from four 1918 influenza victims exhumed from a mass grave in Brevig Mission on the Seward Peninsula of Alaska.

One of the victims, an Inuit female (age unknown) was influenza RNA positive [A􏰀Brevig Mission􏰀1􏰀18 (H1N1)]”

Note that later Taubenberger et al found additional samples from various sources, including London hospital, that allowed complete sequencing of the gene.

A great book is Gina Kolata’s book (1999). Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Publishers.

I have about 50 journal articles on 1918 flu pandemic and several books.

Taubenberger later did comparisons of virulence between H5N1 and H1N1 which was probably covered in lecture you heard.

Joel, did you like “The Great Influenza” by John Barry? It was more scholarly than Kolata’s book, but had a lot of good points about the emergence of scientific medicine. (I loved Kolata’s book so much when it came out I wrote a term paper on the 1918 flu and even talked my way onto Fort Devens (previously Camp Devens) to photograph some graves from the right period.)

One of the issues with the spread of flu by soldiers was that the commanding generals in the US Army kept violating the quarantines set by the Medical Corps, in an effort to rush soldiers to France.

My grandfather describes a flu outbreak at Camp John Wise in his diary during the late summer of 1918 (around the time the 2nd wave started), where he was training as a balloonist. Several of his friends got quite sick. He got it too, but a very mild case; however he’d had typhoid fever the previous January. People who’d been seriously ill for did better when they caught this flu; they were able to cope with the cytokine storms.

Grandpa did talk about French officers who were touring the camps to whip up morale; I can easily see English officers doing the same, which might explain how the flu got to the US if in fact the epidemic originated in England.

originated at the British army bases of Etaples and Aldershot.” These were port cities where troops and equipment unloaded

Aldershot is an army base but it’s not a port city: it’s about 30 miles inland.

(30 miles might seem close enough to an American or a Canadian, but please bear in mind that no point in the UK is more than about 70 miles from the sea.)

Logistically, I could see stuff arriving at Portsmouth and being shipped straight to Aldershot where it could have been warehoused or unpacked. WAG so take as much salt as needed

“Between January 21st and June 4th of 1918, Dr. Gates reports on an experiment where soldiers were given 3 doses of a bacterial meningitis vaccine.”

I am quoting this sentence again because I am still laughing at Barry’s ability to turn a simple sentence into an incoherent mess.

All, please have my most sincere excuses but I’m stuck with an ethical dilemma and thus, I have an offtopic question which is bound to an offtopic context:

Since a few months, I had to stop school (machining technics course) because my fine motor skills, or lack off, is the cause behind needing 150+ hours to finish what is normally a 60 hours shop based practical module and I’d need a year or two of ergotherapy to overcome that issue.

That factor plus various other life factors are the reasons why my primary care medical doctor along with the few specialists medical doctors that I have would recommend and approve a permanent disability status which they offered to me (currently, I have a metric fµckton of issues, my interpretation) to fill out the paperworks to submit to both provincial and federal government agencies and ministries (all the relevants one which include taxations and retirements related ministries).

Recently, I had an appointment at an optometrists office to get assessed and was shopping for the necessary glasses. Turn out that I need special lenses to work on the computer, degressive lenses with a blue light filter coating and the set of lenses + the frame cost 906$ canucks money, of which 138$ is paid off by one of the provincial ministry and I must find the rest.

At this point, I have to resort to things like GoFundMe (getting a loan is out of question at the moment and I have tried half a dozen places including those places where they have an interest rate of 32% per year) but the dilemma is that, I can’t work or study more than about 15 hours per week (my belief and I need to collect that data for the medical Drs overseeing my care)…Thing is, I love to study and my long-term plan is to take a 3 credit undergrad course each semester, publish some research so I’d like to know if, under these circumstances, would it be ethical to use GoFundMe to fund those eyewears?


Alain writes,

…would it be ethical to use GoFundMe to fund those eyewears?

MJD says,

Of course. By the way, didn’t you help RI recently with your computer skills. Thanks and good luck, Alain

FYI – I tried a GoFundMe directed at Climate Change education and received nothing but respectful insolence under Orac’s leadership.

Even for you, MJD, this is low. Alain has contributed more in both comments and efforts to help Orac with his site’s transition than you ever have with all your comments and latex fetish. Now, despite the off topic but serious question, you have attempted to hijack his plea and turn it into something to benefit you.

You are a very bad man.
I wish you into the cornfield.

*My apologies to Orac, regular and serious visitors and to Alain.

Alain, absolutely. That’s what crowdfunding is for, and people have raised money for far more frivolous causes.

I took the liberty of sharing your campaign in a few places. Some anarchists might come through, if you’re wondering who the random strangers are.

I’d donate myself, but I have eight dollars to my name right now. (I didn’t get any work done last week because I was looking after my 89 year old grandmother.)

A bit more visits (~260) and 5 days later, I am at 95$ raised in Canadian money 🙂

Thanks you very much everyone involved 😉


Have you also checked out monitors recently (as well)? There seems to be a big push at the moment for “Eye care monitors” that were all over Amazon when I was looking last night, they have low blue light modes and are flicker free. BenQ seemed to have the biggest range of them at reasonable prices, since they don’t pitch to gamers as much.

Hello Mongrel,

That could be useful for home use. At the moment, my monitor is a 32 inch TV (Sharp) given by a friend. That plus the larger fonts does help reduce my eyes fatigue but for the BenQ monitor, I will check them out next year.



Hello Orac I was thinking that doctors records on patients with flu getting aspirin should help sort the 1918 flu epidemic dilemma. Very many people could no afford the doctor or the tablets. Also surely word would get around that aspirin is useless. Given then that aspirin was useless this would confirm the deadliness of the disease. Basically why was the flu so abnormal? To get to the bottom of this is important so that we can be ready for a next time

There are lots of reasons, and trying to figure out what happened a century ago has been ongoing for decades, with lots of ups and downs. One start is to read the book The Great Influenza by John Barry. Add to that read this blog article by a virologist, and the ongoing comments from the last few years:

Research is still going on, and on, and on. One part is the hunt for a universal flu vaccine, with some approaches including growing it in plants. This is just one of the weird and wonderful things I have learned by listening to that virologist’s group podcast: This Week in Virology.

Barry book is one of the books I have read. Some things I forgot to mention above regarding the hypothesis that exposure to 1890s flu influenced severity:
1. Taubenberger and others have tested the virus they found on lab animals, result exponentially more virulent than other flu viruses. Lab animals had NOT been exposed to previous flus.
2. 28 years of age highest mortality; but those older, even much older would have also been exposed to the 1890s flu, so why was their mortality, especially the much older, much less? And, as I mentioned, teens too young to have been exposed to 1890s flu died at higher rates than senior citizens, who would have been.

We may never know exactly why; but will probably have a reasonable set of hypotheses and it wasn’t from vaccinating the troops.

Aspirin is useless? I suggest you read up on prostaglandins, etc (e.g., Wikipedia. Mechanism of action of aspirin). Or how about arthritis?

Aspirin is dangerous to give to kids with flu or chickenpox, risk of Reye’s Syndrome; but almost every medicine is contraindicated for some.

Of course aspirin is useless to prevent or cure influenza, but aspirin is a potent febrifuge and analgesic, valuable in treating the symptoms of influenza. If you have ever had a real case of the flu you know how debilitating the pain and fever can be. People die from high fevers, and influenza will kill way, given how high the fevers can get. Pre-existing malnutrition, common in 1918-19, and other constitutional conditions would have made many victims more susceptible to death from fever and the other concomitants of influenza.
In 1918, the only available and reasonably safe febrifuges that were widely available were quinine, which was impractical for most, and aspirin. Acetaminophen existed but was not in the kind of widespread use it is today. For a lot of people, aspirin was highly suspect. As I pointed out above, there was a somewhat credible belief that the Germans were responsible for the flu, and as Aspirin was a trademarked product of a German company it would have been highly suspect, causing many people to avoid it and contributing to the death rate.

“Scratch the surface, and it’s always the Jews.”
I sincerely hope you’re being sarcastic. It’s hard to be sure these days.

When I read the article, I wondered if he learned his writing style by watching those ancient aliens shows.

What if the Cottingley Fairies were really alien visitors who had been observing the nefarious American experiments and then flew to England to teach the Royal Homeopathic Hospital how to prepare a medicine from American soldiers vomit?

And what if, after potentiating this medicine, they took it to Fatima, Portugal, where they showed the shepherd children how to make it even more effective by succussing it with a bible containing a fragment of the garment of St Magdalena to protect them from the coming Spanish flu?

The possibilities are endless.

In other anti-vax news…

According to AUS celebrity mag, Woman’s Day, Elle MacPherson was spotted at the Melbourne Cup sporting a new big ring.
( see also her Instagram). Of course, she has lots of money so she could have bought it for hers3elf BUT it looks rather like a traditional engagement ring to me ( the style and manner of wearing it)
So is Andy engaged?
It may mean that with her money behind him he either-
– makes more films about himself’ and/ or ba science or
– he just spends money and shuts up
On a happier note, the aforesaid magazine correctly reports how his work led to a drop in vaccination rates and rise in VPDs.

“So is Andy engaged?
It may mean that with her money behind him he either-
– makes more films about himself’ and/ or ba science or
– he just spends money and shuts up”

Or in the end they separate and he gets to keep a big chunk of dough. Sort of like the outcome of Jim Carrey and that B-actress whatshername.

I’m rather surprised he didn’t try to link Dr Gates, the WW I researcher, to Bill Gates’ TED Talk depopulation agenda in his conspiracy.

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