18. The Spanish Flu killed among the rich and famous
One of the enduring names of the American automobile industry – Dodge – was the surname of two brothers who founded the company, John and Horace Dodge. Both died of complications from Spanish Flu. Rose Cleveland, sister of former American President Grover Cleveland, died of the flu on November 22, 1918. Austrian artist Gustav Klimt succumbed during the third wave in 1919. Walt Disney contracted the illness and survived, as did the King of Spain, Alphonse XIII. Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted the flu while serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
General John J. Pershing was stricken by the flu, though he too survived. Another survivor of the second wave was Amelia Earhart, who served as a nurse among Canadian troops suffering from the flu near Toronto. Earhart was sickened, developed pneumonia, and nearly died. After she recovered she required surgery for sinus problems caused by the flu, which recurred for the rest of her life, causing her considerable discomfort on many of her famous flights. Yet another who contracted the flu and survived was the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who abdicated his throne at the end of the First World War.
As the Spanish flu emerged in America, the federal government downplayed the danger. President Wilson and his administration stressed the need for Americans to support the war effort, especially during the first wave. Information regarding the dangers from the flu, already suppressed by wartime censorship, remained sketchy. State and local officials faced the rising numbers of ill and dying with little to no federal support. Even those already ill were urged to report to work, and those who chose to remain at home were belittled for their lack of patriotic duty. Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States, did not address the issue of the sickness ravaging the country. He simply said nothing.
His government, determined to maintain war production and the strength of the American economy, urged Americans to report to work. Across the country efforts to control the crisis by local authorities drew the disparagement of the federal government where it affected war production. The absence of national leadership gave rise to con men posing as medical experts, offering cures for the flu. One such huckster, Franklin Duane, who claimed to be a medical doctor, offered pills he called “Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets”. Along with the pills, Duane suggested a positive attitude offered protection against the flu. He was but one of many who profited from the tragedy, while the federal government did nothing to prevent the sale of placebos offered as “cures”.
The most volatile period of the Spanish Flu, the second wave during the autumn of 1918, coincided with the peak of American combat involvement during the First World War. The press ignored the virus in favor of war coverage. On October 3, 1918 – a Thursday – 191 people died in Boston, according to the records of the Boston Globe. The total appeared on the newspaper’s front page the following morning, framed by two stories about the war, both of which featured much larger typeface, and both of which contained the inflammatory reference to the Germans popular at the time. They referred to them as “Huns”. The story about the casualties in Boston said that the nearly 200 persons had died of the “grippe”.
The Boston newspapers printed Friday, October 4, 1918, reported little regarding the crisis beyond the existence of the seasonal flu. The Boston Post reported, “Health authorities are encouraged that the increase is but a small one”, in reference to the number of deceased the preceding day. Instead, the several newspapers of the flu stricken city focused their attention on the Boston community’s failure to meet its goals in the sale of Liberty Bonds to support the war. Another story in the Boston Globe reported the governor of Massachusetts’ request to the federal government to cancel the ban on driving automobiles on Sunday (a wartime savings measure). In his plea, Governor Samuel McCall referenced the flu, and claimed driving in fresh air would help citizens, because “fresh air and sunshine will enable them to better fight the grippe”.
21. Average Americans didn’t know of the illness until it reached their community
The American people were less informed in 1918. Most of what they knew about world events and social situations came from the gossip of their neighbors and the content of their local newspapers. There was no 24-hour news cycle, no daily press conferences from national leaders, nor even local authorities. Philadelphia’s problems were of little concern to residents of Cleveland. The flu was a seasonal event, best handled locally by doctors and nurses. Locals had tried and true methods of combating it, which were used every flu season as they had been for generations.
When the flu struck it was a local event in the eyes of most Americans, not another step in a global battle. Its severity was stunning, and many communities experienced a backlash against the local authorities’ failure to contain it, but it they were short-lived. One of the most memorable factors of the Spanish Influenza is that it was almost completely forgotten. Newspapers reported it as it occurred and ignored it after it was over in their area. The global impact of the Spanish Flu all but vanished from the record. It became the forgotten disaster, unworthy of mention as just another bout of the flu which occurred during wartime. The 50 million losses became part of the casualties of the First World War.
In 1917 the Wilson Administration created the Committee for Public Information. Its purpose was to monitor all information made available to the public regarding the conduct of the war, and the activities of the federal government. It was headed by George Creel, and became known as the Creel Committee. Creel believed that there existed little difference between telling the truth and outright lying to the public, as long as the desired ends were achieved. The Creel Committee decided what could and could not be reported to the American public about the war, both overseas and in the effort to support it at home. Under emergency measures rammed through Congress by the Wilson Administration, violating the strictures of the Creel Committee became sedition.
The federal government made little comment regarding the flu, leaving its control to the several states, which for the most part allowed municipal and county governments to lead the fight against the silent threat. Wilson’s government did encourage Americans to continue to work, to increase production, and to participate in Liberty Bond drives and rallies. The government also supported recruiting rallies. It was aware of the high rate of infection at military bases and aboard ships, and deliberately censored the reporting of such information in the communities which supported them. For the federal government, this catastrophe was treated simply as a rendition of the seasonal flu.
Because the shutdowns of businesses across the country were sporadic and staggered, the overall economy suffered little during the Spanish Flu, at least in the United States. The brief economic downturn which marked the beginning of the 1920s affected returning servicemen, but within a few months American industry produced consumer goods at previously unforeseen levels. About 875,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu, more than 12 times the fatalities suffered by the American military during the World War. The average life expectancy for Americans dropped by about ten years. The economy barely faltered.
Prior to these events of 1918, America suffered numerous epidemics of dangerous diseases, including other bouts with influenza. Following this tragedy, other diseases continued to claim American lives annually, including tuberculosis, polio, cholera, yellow fever, scarlet fever, measles, malaria, and others. The Spanish Flu rapidly became part of the past, to the point it earned the sobriquet of the forgotten flu. The manner in which it appeared and swept the country remained hidden to the general public until recent events brought it back to the forefront of public attention. A century after this grim chapter in history, Americans again find themselves urged to self-isolate and avoid crowds. At the same time some Americans claim that we have never faced anything like the current situation before. They are wrong.
The Spanish flu struck the United States as the nation was reaching its peak of mobilization during the First World War. Railroads teemed with relocating troops, harbors and ports were crowded with ships and sailors. Factories operated at full capacity. At the time flu was not known to be a virus, transmission by contact with contaminated surfaces had not been identified. In other words, it was a mysterious and previously unknown illness, which struck far more viciously than previously seen strands of seasonal flu. Americans at all levels were completely unprepared for its virulence, and watched with stunned helplessness as it killed seemingly at random.
Since these events, vaccines for flu and medicines to mitigate its symptoms appeared, both through prescriptions and over the counter compounds. Meanwhile, new strands of the flu continue to appear, as well as other viruses and illnesses which could easily reach these out of control proportions if the public is not informed of their existence and their propensity to spread. Medical knowledge advanced immensely in the century since the flu of 1918. That year and around the world into 1920, a respiratory illness caused by a novel virus claimed millions worldwide, while leaders suppressed knowledge of its existence. Some even opposed efforts to contain it out of financial and political concerns. Nothing more dramatically demonstrates the need to learn from history.
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