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 .

 

George Edwin Brown and Jennie Olivia Johnson Brown

My maternal grandfather, George Edwin Brown, was born on May 30, 1876, in Lime Springs, Iowa. He was the son of my maternal first great-grandparents, James DeGrush Brown and Ella Francelia Dye Brown.[1]

George was employed by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Jennie & George Brown, cir. 1903
Jennie & George Brown, cir. 1903

On March 4, 1903, he married Jennie Olivia Johnson (my maternal grandmother), who was born in Ottumwa on February 28, 1881. Her parents were Sven Peter Johnson and Johanna Christina Magnusson from Sweden.

GeorgeBrownfamilyGeorge and Jennie had four children: Lloyd William Brown (my uncle) (1904-1973); Marian Frances Brown Krohnke (my mother) (1906-1992); Charles Edwin Brown (my uncle) (1913-1970); and Dorothy Mae Brown Williamson (my aunt) (1916-1996). (Photo–left to right: Lloyd, Marian, Jennie, Dorothy, George and Charles.)

George died in Ottumwa on September 29, 1931, before I was born. Jennie died in Ottumwa on December 9, 1945, when I was six years old. I have vague memories of visiting her in her home and of her warm, loving hugs.


[1] The source is Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994).