Pandemic Journal (# 28): The 1918 Flu Never Went Away  

Concerns over when the  current coronavirus pandemic would end prompted a Washington Post journalist, Teddy Amenabar, to report, “Over time, those who contracted the [1918 flu] virus developed an immunity to the novel strand of influenza, and life returned to normal by the early 1920s, according to historians and medical experts. Reports at the time suggested the virus became less lethal as the pandemic carried on in waves.”[1]

However, this “strand of the flu didn’t just disappear. The influenza virus continuously mutated, passing through humans, pigs and other mammals. The pandemic-level virus morphed into just another seasonal flu. Descendants of the 1918 H1N1 virus make up the influenza viruses we’re fighting today.”

According to  Ann Reid, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education who successfully sequenced the genetic makeup of the 1918 influenza virus in the 1990s, “the 1918 flu is still with us, in that sense. It never went away.”

In 2009, two influenza experts at the National Institute of Health (David Morens and Jeffrey Tanbenberger) along with Anthony S. Fauci wrote an article that asserted that the 1918 influenza virus had contributed to pandemics in 1957, 1968, 2009 (and now 2020) which constitute a “pandemic era.” [2]

“There are similarities to draw between today’s pandemic and [the 1918 influenza]. Both come from winged animals — one from birds and the other from bats. Both are respiratory viruses. Both led people to wear masks in public. Both forced cities and schools to shut down for periods of time. And, finally, in both cases, the country’s leaders exacerbated problems by ignoring the early warning signs.”

Nevertheless, “influenza viruses and coronaviruses are not the same. There’s very little someone can draw from influenza to then provide treatment for the infectious disease named covid-19, said Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.”

The last word was provided by Dr. Howard Markel, a physician and medical historian at the University of Michigan. “The sad answer is [that the 1918 influenza outbreak cannot tell us] very much [about how the current pandemic may end]. The operative word in this particular pandemic is ‘novel’ coronavirus. We’re learning as we go along, but we really don’t know very much.”[3]

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[1]  Amenabar, ‘The 1918 flu is still with us’: The deadliest pandemic ever is still causing problems today, Wash. Post (Sept. 3, 2020).

[2]   Morens, Taubenberger & Fauci, The Persistent Legacy of the 1918 Influenza Virus, N. Eng. J. Medicine (July 16, 2009).

[3] Another recent Washington Post article described individuals recently discovering letters by their ancestors that described what living through the 1918 influenza pandemic was like and seeing parallels with our experience with the current coronavirus pandemic. (Natanson, ‘It is getting better now’: Family letters for the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, Wash, Post (Sept. 6, 2020). See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu (Mar. 27, 2020);[Comment]; Naming of 1918-20 Pandemic (Mar. 28, 2020); [Comment]: Other Thoughts on the 1918 Flu (April 22, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 22): Other Reflections on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920 (May 17, 2020); Minnesota Romance in the Midst of the 1918 Flu (June 17, 2020).

 

Minnesota Romance in the Midst of the 1918 Flu

In April of 1917, LaVerne Roquette, a 22-year-old art student at the University of Minnesota, went dancing at the Roof Garden of the Hotel Radisson in downtown Minneapolis. There she met and danced with Russell Rathbun, a 27-year-old banker from Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. They immediately fell in love and danced every night for a week before he shipped off for France with the American Expeditionary Force to fight in what became known as World War I.

They then became regular correspondents, and some of her letters mentioned what became known as the 1918 influenza or flu.

On October 10, 1918, LaVerne wrote a letter to her beau from her hometown of Dickinson, North Dakota, where she was sequestered. She said, “Mother won’t let me out because that awful disease … is all over the United States in every little town. All the towns and cities for miles around are all closed — everything but the meat markets, grocery, and dry good stores. At some places people have to wear gauze masks when they appear on the streets … the government has closed all schools, churches, theatres. Somehow this pretty day has been wasted. Have just had to sit inside and look out, all day long.”

Later that month, she wrote that the flu “has been raging like wildfire in the United States. It didn’t miss Dickinson by any means. I wasn’t left out of the swim either.” She had caught the flu.

Another letter from LaVerne said government officials were endorsing whiskey “to kill the influenza germ” so she stole a drink from her father’s wine chest. “I drank quite a large glass full of whiskey. In a very short time I talked very loud and giggled to myself. . . I soon fell into a deep sleep and never even moved until almost noon the next day.” After a week in bed, she recovered.

After the fighting in the war ended on the Armistice of November 11, 1918 (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”), Russell had survived and returned to the U.S. The two of them were married in January 1920.

They then lived in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota until 1922, when they moved to St. Paul after Minnesota Governor J.A.O. Preus appointed Russell to be State Commissioner of Banks.

These letters recently were discovered by their granddaughter, Holly Hannah Lewis, who used them to write a book for her family members.

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Brown, Letters from earlier pandemic echo with resonance today, StarTribune (May 31, 2020). The 1918 flu has been the subject of other posts and comments to this blog: Pandemic Journal (# 3): 1918 Flu (Mar. 27, 2020); [Comment]; Naming of 1918-20 Pandemic (Mar. 28, 2020); [Comment]: Other Thoughts on the 1918 Flu (April 22, 2020); Pandemic Journal (# 22): Other Reflections on the Flu Pandemic of 1918-20 (May 17, 2020).