Can the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918 Explain the Baby Boom of 1920 in Neutral Norway?

By Mamelund, Svenn-Erik | Population, March 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Can the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918 Explain the Baby Boom of 1920 in Neutral Norway?


Mamelund, Svenn-Erik, Population


The European countries that were massively affected by the First World War, whether by sending soldiers to the front, fighting the war on their own soil, or both, experienced a sharp decline in fertility during the period 1914-1918 (Chesnais, 1992). Figure 1 shows a steep decline of fertility in Italy, France and Germany during the war. The fertility curves for other warring nations, for example Austria-Hungary, England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Bulgaria, not shown, were very similar. The low fertility in the belligerent countries during the war is probably explained by the separation of soldiers from their wives and by the war having hindered young adults from marrying. In addition, it is reasonable to assume that those who were not enrolled in the armed forces postponed marriages and births from fear of the war and its consequences. The war thus created a huge potential for a compensating later resurgence in marriages and births as well as a "moral obligation to replace the deceased". Indeed, birth rates in most belligerent countries began to rise once again in 1919 (for France in 1917), so that by 1920 they had equalled or surpassed the pre-war level.

The fertility patterns of nations that remained neutral, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Spain, were not affected in the same way (Chesnais, 1992). Figure 2 shows that the birth rates in Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands declined relatively smoothly and continuously throughout the war until 1919. (The pattern of these countries is also reasonably representative of Denmark, Switzerland, and Spain.) This decline, however, is typical of the transition from higher to lower birth rates that have marked all societies throughout Europe. Hence, no substantial decline in birth rates linked to the war seems to have occurred in neutral countries. Nonetheless, like the belligerent countries, neutral countries faced a baby boom in 1920 (Figure 2).

Surprisingly, there are few studies that have analysed the baby boom in Europe after the First World War in any depth, in contrast to the more famous baby boom following the second World War. Perhaps a natural explanation for the 1920 baby boom, especially for the warring nations, was the gradual return to normal patterns of life after the war (Henry, 1966; Winter, 1977). Yet despite this, the birth rates in 1919 seem to be far lower than pre-war figures. Could there have been other factors at that time to cause people to postpone the start of a family? There is also a clear discrepancy between birth rates in 1919 and those of 1920 that perhaps goes beyond the most immediate explanation, namely the First World War.

This article directs attention to a hitherto little appreciated factor, the Spanish influenza pandemic. It spread around the globe in three waves in 1918. The first bout of influenza appeared during the months from March to May, but at this point in time the disease was not very contagious and it claimed few lives. In mid-June, however, the influenza returned, spread fast, and reached pandemic proportions. Many came down with the flu during the summer wave from July through September, but still relatively few died from it. The Spanish influenza made a third appearance during the autumn from October through December. The influenza virus had mutated since the relatively mild summer outbreak and was now highly lethal to those who were infected. However, those with a previous infection were partially protected against later waves due to the acquisition of immunity.

Spanish influenza affected at least 500 million persons or over one fourth of the world's population at that time (Laidlaw, 1935). According to the most recent revision and update the global death toll was between 50 and 100 million (Johnson and Mueller, 2002). Hence the number of victims of Spanish influenza exceeded the number of casualties from the First World War by five to ten times. People of all ages experienced an increase in mortality, but those who suffered the most were people in the fertile ages of 20 to 40 years who normally have little to fear from influenza. …

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