Pandemics and the Military

The Army’s oldest and deadliest enemy

Since the founding of the United States Army in 1775, there has been one common enemy through every battle, every war. Disease. Before the twentieth century more soldiers perished due to disease than from battle wounds.


For the Army on the frontier, cholera was one of the major illnesses that affected the troops. Found in contaminated water, Cholera or Vibrio cholerae, causes diarrhea and vomiting which can lead to dehydration and death. In 1866 a Cholera epidemic hit Kansas. During the epidemic the Fort Leavenworth post reported a total of seven cases and five deaths. Overall cholera claimed 1,268 lives in the Army during 1866. Cholera appeared frequently at Fort Leavenworth as it was a depot for supplies for the march to Mexico.

Widespread cholera epidemics hit the United States at least four separate occasions in the 19th century. It was not until the implementation of sanitation practices such as hand washing and water treatment did cholera outbreaks in the U.S. and Army diminish. Fortunately for the Army, cholera was only a major issue during times of peace rather than during periods of major military campaigns.


Decades later the U.S. Army dealt with another epidemic illness, H1N1 influenza virus A or more commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu. The Spanish Flu did not originate in Spain but in Haskell County, Kansas. It spread quickly to local posts including Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth. On 4 March, 1918 an outbreak appeared at Fort Riley which hospitalized nearly 500 soldiers within a week. In order to slow the spread of infection, the U.S. closed schools, public gatherings, and limited the number of people in stores. By the end of the three deadly waves, 675,000 people died in the United States. During World War I, the pandemic of Spanish influenza had a devastating impact on the U.S. military, claiming the lives of over 43,000 sailors and soldiers. In 1938, the U.S. Army began testing influenza vaccines with a research team that included Jonas Salk, the American researcher who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines. The first mass use of influenza vaccines for soldiers occurred in 1944.

Edith L. Cotton, a Medical Staff Manager at Munson Army Health Center, designed the cotton face mask pictured below as part of a contest. The mask design won “Most Artistic”. The mask displays Munson Army Health Center’s motto Constant Dedicated Care”. The artist included the slogan “FLATTEN THE CURVE” and a line to represent the effort of medical professionals to spread out the rate of infection so not to overwhelm the health care system.

Donated by SGM Kristine Quinn, USA Ret

Artistic Cotton Mask
USDB Sales Store Cotton Mask

United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) inmates manufactured the mask displayed here. The mask on the mannequin head is a first attempt at creating masks for the Army post. After releasing certain weaknesses in the design, the USDB sales store redesigned the mask and created a second version.

On loan from 1LT Justin Overman

"Words of Healing for the Sick Soldier" by Mr. H.E. Brown, ca. 1860
Monthly Sick and Wounded Report
Letter Regarding Contagious Diseases at Fort Leavenworth, 1872