Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

30 October 2018

The 1918 influenza pandemic in India

‘Nearly every household was lamenting a death, and everywhere terror and confusion reigned.’

This year marks the centenary of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Of all countries, India was the worst afflicted. Perhaps as many as 17 millions died, in two waves of disease that swept the land in May and October.

Official documents in the India Office Records record the outbreak, progress, and aftermath of a disease for which no one was remotely prepared. Northern, Central and Western India suffered the most. The files bring together reports of sanitary commissioners from across the country, such as this despatch from the Punjab:

Despatch from the Punjab concerning the influenza pandemic IOR/L/E/7/949 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The commissioner of Bombay noted the terrifying speed of contagion:

Evidence from commissioner of Bombay noting the terrifying speed of contagionIOR/L/E/7/949 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Popular treatments included quinine, hot whisky, and aspirin.  They had no effect. Of more value were practical measures: those taken by the commissioner of Madras were typical:

Practical measures taken by the commissioner of MadrasIOR/L/E/7/949 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Once the epidemic had passed, the officials considered what they might have done differently. The general mood was defeatist. If America and Europe had failed to halt the epidemic, what hope had a country like India? Without a marked improvement in living conditions, it was clear that India would remain vulnerable to future outbreaks of the disease.

There was a solitary cause for satisfaction: the heroic behaviour of communities and individuals. In their thousands, members of the public, community leaders, and government servants had stepped forward to give practical and financial help:

Certificate of thanks issued to George Dick, barristerMss Eur F534/143 ‘Certificate of thanks issued to George Dick, barrister’ Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Report from Health Officer, Delhi, on outbreak in Calcutta IOR/L/E/7/949, ‘Report from Health Officer, Delhi, on outbreak in Calcutta’ Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Without this remarkable surge of support locally, the commissioners agreed that the calamity nationally would have been even worse.

Antonia Moon
Lead Curator, Post-1858 India Office Records

Further reading:
India Office Records -
IOR/L/E/7/949 (‘Influenza’, 1919)
IOR/P/10595 (India Medical Proceedings, 1919)

David Arnold, ‘Disease, Rumor and Panic in India’s Plague and Influenza Epidemics, 1896-1919’, in Empires of Panic: Epidemics and Colonial Anxieties, ed by Robert Peckham (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015), pp. 111-29.


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