/Woodrow Wilson downplayed the 1918 flu pandemic. Then, he got violently sick.

Woodrow Wilson downplayed the 1918 flu pandemic. Then, he got violently sick.

President Woodrow Wilson, who'd campaigned for president in 1916 opposing U.S. entry into World War I, led his nation into the war in 1917. He contracted the flu after arriving in Paris in April1919 to join Big Four peace talks.'

Even a U.S. president couldn’t avoid a pandemic that swept the world and infected millions.

The year: 1919. The president: Woodrow Wilson.

The disease dubbed “The Spanish flu” emerged in 1918 during the last months of World War I.

Wilson contracted the illness in April 1919, shortly after arriving in Paris for the Big Four peace talks.

Sarah Fling, a fellow writing for the White House Historical Association, notes that a number of members of the Wilson entourage had caught the flu during a transatlantic voyage in February 1919, including his daughter, Margaret, several members of the Secret Service, Wilson’s stenographer, and his chief usher.

News of Wilson’s illness was initially hidden from the public, with The Associated Press reporting flatly on April 5 that the president was “not stricken with influenza.”

But no one knew better what was unfolding than Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson, personal physician to the president.

Publicly, Grayson said only that the president had caught a cold because of his workload and the “chilly and rainy weather” in Paris.

Privately, however, Grayson told a different story. In a letter that only became public a little over a decade ago, he wrote to a friend on April 14, explaining, “These past two weeks have certainly been strenuous days for me. The President was suddenly taken violently sick with the influenza at a time when the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance.”

“And without him and his guidance Europe would certainly have turned to Bolshevism and anarchy,” he continued in the letter, now held by the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library. “From your side of the water you can not realize on what thin ice European civilization has been skating. I just wish you could spend a day with me behind the scenes here. Some day perhaps I may be able to tell the world what a close call we had.”

During the peace talks, Fling writes, the Big Four were were trying to solve larger questions of German reparations, the creation of the League of Nations, and the threat of Bolshevism, — “all of which were jeopardized by Wilson’s sickness.” 

Around the same time, a Washington Post columnist wrote: “The country will be anxious regarding President Wilson until he is again at work…It is a time when an hour lost means the loss of millions of hours to these individuals who are awaiting to begin reconstruction…the allied world hopes for the sake of its material interests that his illness will be light and brief.”

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As the president’s illness progressed, aides became alarmed when the normally predictable Wilson began, on at least two occasions, blurting out “unexpected orders,” according to A. Scott Berg in his biography, “Wilson.”

The president “created a scene over pieces of furniture that had suddenly disappeared,” when in fact it had not been moved. At one point, Berg writes, Wilson was certain that he was surrounded by French spies.

“[W]e could but surmise that something queer was happening in his mind,” Chief Usher Irwin Hoover later recalled, according to John M. Barry in “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” “One thing was certain: [H]e was never the same after this little spell of sickness.”

Barry writes that the flu undercut Wilson’s stamina, disrupted his concentration, and affected “his mind in other, deeper ways.”

Six months after contracting the flu, Wilson suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and blind and effectively incapacitated as president. He died in February, 1924, three years after leaving office.