One day in 1918, a young boy was playing on a swing in a Kansas town.
Suddenly, he stopped as his head was throbbed from a headache and he sweated with a fever.
His mother took the boy into the house and put him to bed. She was worried about his fever and how he had weakened so quickly. Then came the coughing as her only son fought to breathe. She stayed by his bedside for days and tried to keep his sisters away.
Soon, she realized her son was sick from the influenza spreading across the state and country that year. It was called the Spanish Flu due to confusion over its origin in Europe. Today, that influenza pandemic is called the “Great Influenza” because it would eventually infect more than 500 million people worldwide and kill 50 to 100 million in two years. In the United States, the virus would claim more lives than the death toll from the Civil War.
That 9-year-old boy living in Kansas 102 years ago was my father; he told me about that experience when I was a teenager. I wondered how Grandmother Susie and Grandpa Oscar coped with the uncertainty of those terrible days as their only son’s life hung in the balance. There was no vaccine for this virus, and it would be another 20 years before penicillin and other “miracle drugs” would be developed to help the human body fight off many diseases. The best my grandparents could do in 1918 was to make Dad comfortable as possible and pray.
My father was fortunate to be in the age group of influenza victims that had a better survival rate from the Great Influenza. The virus killed mostly people aged 20 to 40 – thousands of soldiers and sailors, farmers, factory workers and mothers in excellent health were struck down by the disease. It was shocking how quickly it killed. Some victims showed the first signs of the disease in the morning and died that night.
These were agonizing deaths. The victims slowly suffocated as fluids filled their lungs causing a black and blue coloration of their faces. Streams of blood would gush from their noses or mouths due to extremely high blood pressure levels caused by the flu, wrote John M. Barry in “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.”
As we debate whether to re-open the economy again and end stay-at-home orders to battle the Coronavirus Pandemic, we should remember how America reacted 102 years when the Influenza was spreading in this country. World War I was still raging in Europe and Americans at home were asked to support the war financially and in spirit through war bond sales and patriotic events. There were laws passed to discourage talk of the defeatism or news that could hurt national morale.
Medical experts and scientists in 1918 asked for what we term “social distancing” today. But American politicians and military leaders insisted on winning the war and rallies and other patriotic gatherings were not canceled. In Philadelphia, a Liberty Loan parade drew thousands to the streets of the city during the height of the outbreak. Soon, the death toll was climbing in that city. At one point, horse-drawn carts were used to pick up bodies of flu victims, Barry wrote, as undertakers were overwhelmed.
Large cities and small rural communities were not spared from the pandemic. Eventually, efforts were made to limit gatherings but only after tens of thousands of deaths.
The wearing of cloth masks to protect against the spread of the disease was encouraged and even required by city governments, but with many masks made of gauze they could not shield against the tiny virus that invaded the human body with impunity. A century ago, there was no microscope capable of detecting a virus; it would be decades before the invention of the electron microscope made that possible. Scientists were fighting an enemy they could not see.
When the Great Influenza finally ran its course after a global rampage, scientists could not determine how it became so deadly. Research into this century still has many question marks on that virus strain that killed tens of millions.
In 1918, the world marveled at the advances in medicine. The Great Influenza showed we had much more to learn. Through the decades scientists and doctors have learned more about saving lives from the tiny invaders of the human cell.
As we battle COVID-19 today, we must remember we don’t have all the answers. But we need to work together to save lives. We owe that to future generations.