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.

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[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).

Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu 

The ongoing news of today’s coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic makes frequent reference to the Spanish flu of 1918, about which I basically knew nothing even though I had seen many references to it and even though I was a history major at Grinnell College (1957-61). [1]

Only now, sketchy internet research tells me that this earlier pandemic is called the “Spanish flu” although it was thought to have originated in the soldiers’ trenches of World War I, virtually the only news of the disease came from Spain, which was not involved in the war. This pandemic started in early 1918 and ended in December 1920, infecting 500 million people around the world (or about one-third of the world’s then total population) and causing 17 to 50 million deaths. In the U.S. the statistics were 25.8  million cases and  675,000 deaths. Unlike typical flu viruses, this one especially affected healthy young adults; almost half of the all deaths were those 20-40 years old. [2]

In that time period, both of my parents lived in Iowa, which had an estimated total Spanish flu cases of 93,000 with 6,000 deaths. In the Fall of 1918 the Iowa Board of Health “quarantined” the entire state and ordered the closing of all “public gathering places.” [3]

At the time, my father, Ward Glenn Krohnke, lived in the small town of Perry in the central part of the state. When the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, he was 16 years old in the junior year of high school.[4] Thus, In early 1918 he was 17 years old in his last year of high school, facing the prospect of joining the U.S. Army and being shipped to Europe to fight in World War I. That same year, after graduation, he did join the Army for training at Camp Dodge, Iowa (just north of Des Moines), where 10,000 men were treated for the flu with 700 of them dying.[5] The Armistice of November 11, 1918, however, led to his honorable discharge without going overseas.

I do not recall ever hearing that that he or his parents or brother contracted this version of the flu or that his father, Alvin J. Krohnke, who was a train dispatcher (or station agent) for the Milwaukee Railroad in Perry, had any financial difficulties caused by the flu.

In 1956 just before the start of my last year of high school, I was selected to go to Hawkeye Boys’ State, which was held at the old Camp Dodge, where we stayed in what must have been the old Army barracks.[6] I do not recall any mention being made at this gathering about its history during World War I or otherwise. Nor do I recall my Father on this occasion saying anything about his basic training there in 1918.

My mother, Marian Frances Brown at the time, in the larger southeastern Iowa town of Ottumwa in early 1918 would have been in the seventh grade. I never heard of her or any members of her family suffering from the Spanish flu, nor did I hear of any flu-related financial difficulties for her father (George Edwin Brown, who worked for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad).

I deeply regret that now I can only speculate about my parents’ concerns and fears during the Spanish flu pandemic and about my father’s concerns and fears about joining the Army and going to Europe to fight in World War I.

I, therefore, urge younger people to figure out what major national and international events occurred in their parents’ lifetimes and engage them in conversation of how they were affected by these larger events. Similarly those of us who are older should talk or write about such experiences for our descendants.

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[1] This blogger has decided to periodically post his reactions to living through this pandemic. Here are the earlier such posts to dwkcommentareis.com: Pandemic Journal (# 1): Kristof and Osterholm Analyses (Mar. 23, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 2): Westminster Presbyterian Church Service (03/22/20), (Mar. 24, 2020).

[2] Spanish flu, Wikipedia; Spanish flu, LiveScience (Mar. 12, 2020); Jester, Uyeki & Jernigan, Readiness for Responding to a Severe Pandemic 100 Years After 1918, Am. Journal of Epidemiology  (Aug. 9, 2018); The Deadly Virus: The Influenzas Epidemic of 1918, Nat’l Archives; Searcy, The Lessons of the Elections of 1918, N.Y. Times (Mar. 22, 2020).

[3] Iowa Dep’t Public Health, The 1918 Flu 100 Years Later (April 2018); Schmidt, Lessons for Iowa from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, The Gazette (Mar. 17, 2020)

4] World War I, Wipipedia.

5] Camp Dodge, Wikipedia; Camp Dodge-Photograph Album-World War I Army Containment 1917 , Wikipedia.

[6]  Growing Up in a Small Iowa Town, dekcommentaries.com (Aug. 23, 2011);  American Legion (Dep’t of Iowa), Boys State of Iowa .