For many of us the flu (or influenza) can be a major annoyance. It meant a week in bed for me when I had it with not being able to work, take care of my kids, not being able to do much of anything. But for too many, the flu is deadly. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, about 5%-20% of Americans get the flu every year. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized because of the flu or due to complications from the flu, and 36,000 die from the flu. The most susceptible to flu complications are the very young, the elderly, and some people with poor health. With 36,000 people dying each year because of the flu, something that we actually have a preventative shot for seems like a lot, but it pales in comparison to the 20 to 40 million people who died during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. During the 1918 flu pandemic more people died in one single year than the four years of the Black Plague (1347-1351).
What was the Spanish Flu Pandemic?
To best understand the pandemic and what gave rise to it, it is important to remember the time period and what events were taking place. In the fall of 1918, World War I was still being fought. That year people started catching what seemed like a cold, but it was actually a flu virus that was different than in previous years. This flu affected millions around the world. The first case in the United States was a young soldier stationed in Kansas. It may have been easier for this particular flu virus to spread because of the military troops stationed throughout the world. As troops exposed to the virus, dispersed to places all around the globe, they took the flu with them, thus infecting other countries. Although no one is sure exactly how it started, it was given the name the Spanish Flu because of its early origins in Spain and its numerous causalities. However, it is now thought that the flu did not originate in Spain. This flu virus is believed to have been a million times more potent than the modern day flu viruses.
How was your ancestor affected?
A great aunt of mine was born in December 1918, during the 1918 flu pandemic. She was born in San Francisco, California where over 5,000 cases of the flu were reported the month of her birth. Her mother gave birth early, the doctors believed that she, like so many others, had caught the flu. Once my great aunt was born, the nurse covered her in oil and wrapped her in cotton gauze and put her in an oven. (No, not a hospital incubator, an oven used for cooking.) They believed that this would help her avoid the deadly flu pandemic. Family legend recalls that it took what seemed like forever to clean the baby of all the cotton that was literally "cooked" onto her skin.
In looking at statistics from the time period, half of the American soldiers who died in Europe during 1918-1919 died as the result of influenza. During this pandemic, the population of the United States was only 103,208,000. More than 675,000 Americans died from the flu, more than all those who died during World War I.
This pandemic affected everyday life including the lives of children. Just as the 1665 Bubonic Plague inspired a nursery rhyme, so, too, did the 1918 Flu Pandemic.
1665 Bubonic Plague:
Ring around the rosies,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down (or dead)
1918 Flu Pandemic:
I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
According to the Public Broadcast System (PBS) show, American Experience, in their episode on the 1918 pandemic, a person could go from being in excellent health to not being able to walk a few hours later. This flu was no respecter of persons. It infected soldiers, families, and the famous such as General John Pershing, Franklin Roosevelt, actress Mary Pickford, and President Woodrow Wilson, all of whom survived.
Americans wore face masks to avoid catching the illness. In October 1918 when the celebrations for the end of World War I took to the streets, people celebrated while wearing their face masks.
The 1918 flu pandemic was an important part of your early 20th century ancestor's life. It was and still is, the biggest health crisis America has known. Even deaths from AIDS have not reached the numbers that the 1918 flu reached. No doubt, that everyone who lived at that time was in some way affected whether they became ill themselves or nursed loved ones. In writing the story of your ancestor's life, this episode in history just might help to better understand their life experiences.
For more information on the 1918 pandemic I would recommend the following:
PBS.org, American Experience, "Influenza 1918," at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/influnza/sfeature/victims.html.
"The Influenza Pandemic of 1918," http://www.stanford.edu/group/virus/uda/.
Van Hartesveldt, Fred R., The 1918-1919 Pandemic of Influenza: The Urban Experience in the Western World, Edwin Mellen Press, 1993
National Public Radio (NPR), "1918 Killer Flu Reconstructed" at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4946718.
Barry, John M., The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. Viking Penguin, 2005.
Kolata, Gina Bari, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, Simon and Schuster, 2001.