Pandemic Journal (# 22): Other Reflections on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920

Several; other references to the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-20 have surfaced that remind me of my original post on that horrendous event.

First, Jill Burcum, an editorial writer for the StarTribune, tells us that this prior pandemic was called, in a well-known journal article at the time, as “The Mother of All Pandemics” with an estimated one-third of the world’s population infected and estimated deaths of 50 to 100 million, that it came “in three waves—the spring of 2018, the fall of that year, and then again in the winter of 2019” and that “healthy adults ages 20-40 were particularly at risk of severe disease and death.” She also mentions that in Iowa, her home state, the flu was resurging in October-November 2018, and especially “hard-hit is Camp Dodge, a military training center near Des Moines.” [1]

Burcum then made her research more personal by doing digital research of newspapers for the period in her father’s county in Iowa (Butler County in the north central part of the state) to see how it coped with the Great Flu Epidemic. She discovered to her surprise that her Great-Grandfather George, then a 27-year-old farmer, married with two young boys, became critically ill in December 2018 with what the newspaper said was “pneumonia,” but that the next month was recovering after being critically ill for three weeks. Thereafter he continued farming and with his wife had two more children. Over 40 years ago, Burchum as a young girl knew Great-Grandfather George, “then gray-haired and in failing health,” and would love to have asked him how he endured this, but she was too young to have such a conversation before he died.

This personal discovery, Burcum says, is “a warning about prematurely letting down our collective guard against infectious diseases. Pathogens can go quiet for a few months after an early strike, then come roaring back.”

The second recent mention of the Great Flu Pandemic is an article in The New York Times by David Segal. After noting the above statistics of the Great flu with 675,000 American deaths, Segal reports that “after the slaughter ended, and for decades after, the pandemic somehow vanished from the public imagination. With rare exceptions, it didn’t crop up in novels, paintings, plays or movies. Even scholars overlooked the subject. The first major account of the flu, Epidemic and Peace — later reissued as America’s Forgotten Pandemic — was published in 1976 by Alfred Crosby, who was baffled by the absence of any impression left by the disaster.”[2]

Historians, according to Segal, “say the pandemic sank into oblivion largely because of World War I, the very cataclysm that hastened the spread of the virus, via millions of moving troops. The war and its aftermath overshadowed the disease, too. For the Allies, there was a victory to celebrate, in November 1918, and triumphalism was the mood of the era.” Even then President Woodrow Wilson, “eager to focus on and sustain the war effort . . .  rarely mentioned the virus, even though he nearly died of it [in 1919] during negotiations in France” of what became the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I.

In addition, Segal claims, ignoring the Great Flu Pandemic could be attirbuted to the widespread belief that “dying from flu was considered unmanly.” According to Catharine  Arnold in her book Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts From the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History, “To die in a firefight . . .reflected well on your family. But to die in a hospital bed, turning blue, puking, beset by diarrhea — that was difficult for loved ones to accept. There was a mass decision to forget.”

Yet another reason for amnesia about the Great Flu, said Segal, was “by 1920, isolationism had regained its prewar popularity, and the flu was regarded as just another malignant foreign force, both in the United States and elsewhere.”

Apparently the only U.S. memorial for the Great Flu is a “five-ton granite bench . . .five feet high and three feet deep in a cemetery in Barre, Vermont.

Third, an article entitled, “Pandemic Notebook,” in the New York Times Book Review, mainly discusses contemporary New York City with passing references to fiction and nonfiction books, old movies and TV series about past plagues and mishaps. Its only reference to the Great Flu is the following: “The main lesson of the 1918 flu pandemic (which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide), the historian John M. Barry wrote in The Great Influenzais that ‘those in authority must retain the public’s trust’ and ‘the way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.’”[3]

Conclusion

John M. BarryAs mentioned in this blog’s Pandemic Journal (# 3), my Father as a high school senior and Army trainee at Iowa’s Camp Dodge in 1917-18 lived through the Great Flu pandemic as did my younger Mother, but I never heard about their experiences of living through that pandemic. Therefore, I have concluded to write about my living through the coronavirus pandemic for my own edification and for that of my relatives and descendants.I encourage others to do likewise.

==================================

[1]  Burcum, My great-grandfather wasn/t hit by the first wave of the ‘Spanish flu,’ but the second, StarTribune (May 15, 2020).

[2]  Segal, A Pandemic Barely Etched in Granite Memorials, N.Y. Times–Sunday Business (May 17, 2020).

[3] Kakutani, Pandemic Notebook: Finding Solace and Connection, in Classic Books,  New York Times-Book Review (May17, 2020).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

2 thoughts on “Pandemic Journal (# 22): Other Reflections on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920”

  1. Hi Duane – thanks for sending these pandemic journal entries. Very interesting.

    The date – although, perhaps, prescient – is 100 years off in this paragraph, I believe: <>

    Thanks – Tim

    The Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen Senior Pastor Westminster Presbyterian Church 1200 Marquette Avenue Minneapolis, MN 55403 (612) 332-3421 ext. 215 | tim@wpc-mpls.org http://www.westminstermpls.org Sent from my iPhone

    >

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