On a recent family call, my 90+ year-young father-in-law said he’d never heard any of his older family members talk about the 1918 pandemic, although his parents and four older sisters had obviously lived through it.
I thought about my life in England. Every town I’ve visited, even the tiniest collection of dwellings, has a memorial to those lost in the “Great War”. The older people in our village talked at length about the changes caused by the war, and what it meant for the generation their own parents grew up in. I heard about an entire generation of women who lived alone because the men who should have been sweethearts, lovers, husbands were instead killed in the war. But despite 50+ million deaths from the 1918-19 pandemic—more than double the 19+ million killed in World War I—nobody ever mentioned it.
How could one of the most horrifically deadly events in human history be forgotten? In his book, America’s Forgotten Pandemic, Alfred W. Crosby says,
The important and almost incomprehensible fact about Spanish influenza is that it killed millions upon millions of people in a year or less. Nothing else—no infection, no war, no famine—has ever killed so many in as short a period. And yet it has never inspired awe, not in 1918 and not since, not among the citizens of any particular land and not among the citizens of the United States. —Cambridge University Press, 1974
In her article, ‘Why the 1918 Flu Became ‘America’s Forgotten Pandemic’ for history.com, Betty Little speculates that, “Once it was over, no one wanted to talk about it.” One theory, she says, is that there were so very few personal stories published about the pandemic, so it wasn’t incorporated into the personal and social fabric of history. But is that cause or effect? Certainly the stories we do hear are horrific. The disease was so virulent, people sometimes died within hours of their first symptoms. Feeling ill, some would sit on a park bench and die before they could get up again. Whole families perished, hospitals and morgues were overrun, and no treatment existed other than folk remedies such as bags of camphor tied around the neck.
John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (—Penguin, 2005), says: “I’ve never been able to come up with a good explanation as to why there’s so little written about the 1918 pandemic.”
Writing for Vanity Fair, What 1918’s “Forgotten Pandemic” Can Teach Us About Today, author Ellen Marie Wiseman cites the war effort and theories that discussing the flu would somehow be unpatriotic, and thus were not covered in newspapers or contemporary literature. But none of that explains why the tragedy which must have touched almost every family was never discussed.
I’m not convinced by these explanations, especially because infectious disease theory did exist. The flu pandemic wasn’t seen as some act of heavenly vengeance meant to punish evildoers. It was known that the disease spread via respiratory droplets. Social distancing and facemasks were understood to help, and were mandated in many areas.
On October 5, 1918 in my hometown of Seattle, Mayor Ole Hanson ordered “…every place of indoor public assemblage in Seattle, including schools, theatres, motion picture houses, churches and dance halls closed by noon.” (—Seattle Daily Times) Theater owners who complained were told, “Some will kick, but we would rather listen to a live kicker than bury him.” When pastors protested, Hanson said, “Religion which won’t keep for two weeks is not worth having.” Fines for failing to wear a facemask or for “expectoration nuisance” (spitting on the sidewalk) were $5 ($81 in today’s dollars).
After a second devastating wave of flu deaths in 1919, the virus disappeared. Unlike the sacrifices and tragedies of World War I, survivors didn’t retell their stories. Hemingway didn’t write them. Hollywood didn’t film them. Grateful and grieving nations didn’t put up monuments to them. And my husband’s grandmother didn’t pass them along.