As we listen to news reports 24/7 about the spreading of coronavirus, we might do well to take a backward glance at the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 (popularly but wrongly called the Spanish Flu), the most savage world plague since the Black Death of the fourteenth century.
First, the appalling statistics. Within a few months perhaps 50 million people died, a number that may be much understated. Some estimate that 20 million died in India alone. In New York City, 851 died in one day; in Philadelphia’s worst week, 5,270 died; and in Massachusetts during a four-month period, the dead numbered 15,000. In 1918, influenza killed 1,100 Ohio residents stationed at Camp Sherman, near Chillicothe.
The pandemic affected the operations of the First World War, which was raging at the time. American Army battle deaths in the “Great War” numbered 49,000, but 64,000 other soldiers died from disease, mostly flu. The German army, just a mile away from the American, lost 186,000 to the flu. As German unrest mounted at home, in a population much smaller than that of the United States, another 400,000 died.
Next door, in neutral Switzerland, 58,000 died during July 1918. And on the other side of the world, in Western Samoa, 20 percent of the population perished.
The most competent scholar of the pandemic, Alfred Crosby, says that in the period of a few months, at least 550,000 Americans died, possibly 600,000 – in any case, more than the combined American battle deaths in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
This was death on a heroic scale.
The fact that a world war was on made matters worse, for crowded troop ships carried the virus around the world. Mere breathing spread the 1918 virus. One of the oddities is that killer illnesses usually take the very young and the elderly first. This one attacked those aged 20 to 35 in disproportionate numbers.
Death came quickly. One day you were healthy,72 hours later you were dead. A hacking cough brought up bloody sputum that looked ghastly against a face already turning blue, and victims struggled for air as their lungs filled with a frothy-reddish fluid, drowning them.
After a first wave struck in 1918, the virus mutated into something still more deadly, and a second wave circled the world, simultaneously killing people in France, Boston, and Greenland. At home, rumors spread that the Germans had planted flu germs in the United States. Showman-evangelist Billy Sunday found listeners ready to believe that a wrathful God was taking vengeance against a sinful nation. Knowing nothing about the reasons for the plague, he blamed its victims.
Quacks emerged to offer their remedies. The Bluffton News, printed at the northeastern edge of Allen County, carried ads for “Doans’s Kidney Pills” – good for colds, influenza, “weak kidneys and aching backs.” Disappointed users of the kidney pills could turn to Hill’s Cascara Quinine. “Relieves grip in 3 days,” promised the ad. (Grippe was the old word for flu.) One doctor, writing a Bluffton News column on “Health Talk,” advocated the use of “Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets,” a laxative designed to “carry off poison from the [body] system and keep the bowels loose.”
To ridicule the efforts of people who anxiously tried such measures to ward off death would suggest a lack of compassion. We empathize with worried church people who stared death in the face and sang from an old hymn:
“O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home….Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away. We fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day.”
Even humor emerged to keep spirit alive. One popular ditty went:
I had a little bird
And its name was Enza.
I opened the window
Communities tried to cope with the flu no one understood. The Bluffton News reported that for a short while, all public meetings in town were forbidden. The front-page headline of the October 17, 1918, issue read: “Close Churches and Schools to Stop Flu.” Red Cross rooms and the motion picture show closed. Local businesses remained open, but “loafing and loitering will not be permitted.”
Classes at Bluffton College continued, though not as usual. Students who traveled to Bluffton from nearby towns via the interurban line were asked to stay home.
The pandemic remains a mystery. Medical scientists at the time did not know that a killer virus was at large. No one had yet seen a virus, for the electron microscope was still years away. After a few months the flu vanished as quickly as it had appeared. It ran out of fuel, so to speak, as survivors developed immunity.
And when it was over, people seldom discussed the epidemic. It was folded into World War I for a half century at least. It became, as one historian has written, “America’s forgotten pandemic.”
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.