I’m resolved to be brighter and more bubbly this week, but I’ll pass this on from last Saturday’s The Writer’s Almanac for historical perspective:
It was on this day in 1918 that the first cases of what would become the influenza pandemic were reported in the U.S. when 107 soldiers got sick at Fort Riley, Kansas.
It was the worst pandemic in world history. That year the flu killed only 2.5 percent of its victims, but more than a fifth of the world’s entire population caught it, and so it’s estimated that between 50 million and 100 million people died in just a few months. Historians believe at least 600,000 people died in the United States alone. That’s more than the number of Americans killed in combat in all the wars of the 20th century combined.
No one is sure exactly how many people died, because it wasn’t even clear at the time what the disease was. One of the strangest aspects of the pandemic in this country was that it was barely reported in the media. President Woodrow Wilson had passed laws to censor all kinds of news stories about the war, and newspaper editors were terrified of printing anything that might cause a scandal.
So as the flu epidemic spread across the country, the newspapers barely commented on it. In large cities, people were dying of the flu so rapidly that undertakers ran out of coffins, streetcars had to be used as hearses, and mass graves were dug. In the fall of 1918, doctors tried to get newspapers to warn people in Philadelphia against attending a parade. The newspapers refused. In the week after the parade, almost five thousand Philadelphians died of the flu. The flu might not have traveled as quickly across the country if troops weren’t being mobilized and shipped from base to base.
Among the writers affected by the flu pandemic was Katherine Anne Porter, who grew so sick with the disease that her family had already arranged for her funeral when she managed to recover. The novelist and critic Mary McCarthy got on a train with her parents on October 30, 1918. Her father died of the flu before their train reached Minneapolis. Her mother died a day later. The novelist William Maxwell lost his mother to the flu that year. He said, “It happened too suddenly, with no warning, and we none of us could believe it or bear it … the beautiful, imaginative, protected world of my childhood swept away.”
The 1918 flu is considered to be very close genetically to the current strain of avian flu decimating bird populations throughout Asia and now into parts of Europe. Go to this blog for daily updates and aggregations from a scientific (as opposed to sensational) point of view on what the avian flu is, what is known and what is being done about it.