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Into the Past: The Not-so-Spanish Spanish Flu

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With Coronavirus/Covid-19 currently raging across the globe, many people are looking to the past for comparisons. Since recurrent diseases such as yellow fever, smallpox, and others feel too far in the past to really compare with, many have chosen a deadly pandemic for inspiration:

The century-old outbreak of the Spanish Flu.

The Spanish Flu, like most strains of influenza, tended to attack the respiratory system and often made the body vulnerable to pneumonia which only further complicated a patient’s prognosis. With no ventilators (the first negative pressure ventilator used on humans – the “iron lung” – wasn’t tested until 1928), no antivirals such as Tamiflu (generic name oseltamivir phosphate; look for “vir” at the end of drugs to identify an antiviral), and widespread misinformation campaigns, those who lived in 1918 were facing a grimmer outlook than we can expect here in 2020. But, lo, did I mention above “misinformation campaigns”? How could this possibly be in the glorious past?!

The news industry in the 1910s was quickly learning from the skillbook of Nelly Bly, who pioneered investigative journalism. These new techniques, wherein journalists dove into the action, led to exposes on corrupt politicians, business owners, and social issues, but they were not the only types of journalists out there. Sensationalist journalism, perfected by Hearst and Pulitzer at the turn of the century, was about to be hijacked for clearly nationalistic causes. Benito Mussolini of World War II fame, for example, honed his political ideologies espousing extreme authoritarianism and an Italian ethno-state.

More broadly, however, nations found themselves in the need of propaganda when facing the meat grinder of World War I. If you were German, your newspapers needed to be pro-German, otherwise the kaiser wouldn’t be able to recruit enough fresh bodies to turn into corpses. If you’re English, the stories need to be pro-England, otherwise Parliament couldn’t shame enough boys into accepting destruction in the trenches.

And, in America, President Woodrow Wilson needed you to shut up about the flu.

Patient zero of the 1918 Flu Pandemic was a farmer in Kansas. The flu spread in the small town of Haskell and later, due to sons being called to the draft and going to large training camps, military installations such as Camp Funston in Kansas. The flu rampaged through the camp, but luckily the doctors realized something was afoot and did their best to quarantine the sick. Though they eventually calmed the virus in the camp using isolation measures, it wasn’t completely effective, and the sick were shipped off to fight in Europe where the virus spread.

boston-red-cross-pandemic-flu

An ambulance hauling a patient in 1918, manned by nurses recruited for the effort. Image from the CDC image gallery.

At the same time, Wilson was apprised of the situation. He knew there was a virulent strain of flu – or something else just as devastating – destroying lives in Kansas. With his war efforts finally underway, he worried the risk of squelching American morale with news of a rapidly-spreading plague would dampen draft and training enthusiasm or compliance. The nation had been deeply divided about joining the war just a year ago, and now (Wilson believed) was not the time to make the populace back out of supporting the war efforts.

So he straight up banned reporting on the virus.

Once in Europe, the virus quickly spread among the ranks of both sides of the fight. Most European nations’ journalism was similarly stunted as America’s had been, what with the need to recruit more people to die. Despite the toll of the disease eventually matching or and eclipsing the number of deaths caused by the war itself, nations such as Britain, Germany, and France all refused to admit the virus was spreading in their ranks. They covered it up.

The only Western nation that didn’t inhibit coverage of the pandemic was Spain.

And boy, did American news latch the heck onto that. With the ability to point to Spanish newspapers as the first publications about the flu, and thus by calling it “Spanish Flu,” American newspapers were finally able to report as the second wave of the virus ravaged places like Camp Devens near Boston, followed soon after by east-coast metropolises. Politicians and military men still tried to downplay the fatality of the virus, which led to the mayor of Philadelphia allowing a massive parade that caused an enormous spread of death and destruction throughout the US, just as the virus – now permanently deemed “Spanish Flu” thanks to misinformation campaigns – continued to rage throughout Europe and Asia.

But misinformation didn’t stop those people who could be called the heroes of the Spanish Flu. In the effort to stop the flu, many doctors found difficulties in isolating the pathogen and, thus, determining a method to develop a vaccine against the disease. Because of the weakened immune systems of the sick, secondary illnesses such as bacterial pneumonia complicated this search. The haste to find a cure often led to sloppy lab work, and many worried that quarantine would be the only effective measure.

anna williams

Image: Anna Williams, true American hero; image taken from the NIH website.

Though this did, sadly, end up being the case since the flu mutated into a less pathogenic form by the next year (as flu tends to do), some doctors did amazing work to discover the flu as a “filterable virus”. Anna Williams, one of the few women in the medical research field at the time, was the first to make this distinction while many others insisted the disease was a resurgence of the bubonic plague. Her efforts with the 1918 flu pandemic eventually led to better understanding and our ability to combat the flu and other viral diseases. Other doctors, especially military doctors at camps, were the first to prove the disease could be limited by quarantine.

All of them, however, were instrumental in establishing public health departments and efforts across the nation.

And, here in 2020, someone will be a new hero we should appreciate. Already, Chinese doctors (many of whom sadly fell to the disease) could be considered heroes for their efforts to sound the whistle and treat early patients. Smaller heroes, such as bloggers like us, can make sure to provide only accurate information while others (resisting… urge… to… start internet fights) may spread misinformation.

Into the Past Prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about people who tell the truth in the face of many lies. Don’t feel constricted to coronavirus or the 1918 flu pandemic, but feel free to use any of the information presented here.

There won’t be a roundup, but you are encouraged to share your work in the comments.

For more information on the Spanish Flu, I encourage you to read The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. You can find a quicker overview posted by the CDC. If you’re into podcasts, the American History Tellers episode “What We Learned from Fighting the Spanish Flu” can be found on Stitcher or on your favorite podcast app (I use Podcast Republic, available on Google Play).

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, H’s greatest passions are writing and history (especially the Age of Jackson). If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.


125 Comments

  1. floridaborne says:

    My 99 words:
    I read The Great Influenza. My dad called it the swine flu (he was born in 1910). The first strain mutated into the animal it became in 1918, and my paternal grandmother died in that pandemic — in St. Louis. She was pregnant at the time. My father, his sister and two brothers ended up in an orphanage for several years.

    COVID-19 was engineered, a weaponized cold virus thought to be contained in a Pandora’s box. I wonder: Was the myth based on fact, and that’s what wiped out a once great civilization 5000 years ago?

    Liked by 8 people

  2. […] you know it, we’re living in a historical time period right now. My first column, “The Not-so-Spanish Spanish Flu“, is already up on the Carrot Ranch! Give it a look see and think about writing a response on […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jules says:

    There is much ‘purposeful’ misinformation spread by competing countries as who is to blame and who isn’t doing enough…

    May we continue to work together in truth to help all those we can. Thanks H for this history. I read (most of this) post to Hubby across the table. We’ve already been on one walk today as more rain has been forecast for today.

    I’ll see what I can do… I’m behind on a bunch of prompts. So I might mash – though at this point I haven’t a single clue as to direction. ~Jules

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’m glad you and Hubby enjoyed the article. It’s probably going to rain here, too – hopefully I can get my butt outside soon to do the lawn work before that happens.

      And no rush (or pressure) on the prompt! There’s no roundup, no judging, just fun!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Jules says:

        While prepping the mower yesterday – he got the front done. Was going to do our back, about an hour ago but the rain already started.

        We’ve got cloudy days all week. At least at the moment the forsythia and daffodils and some tulips are still in bloom so there is some color out of the windows.

        I’m taking things slow, thanks. Got up some wash and working on some cold salads… coleslaw and potato. Think I’m going to try and make some sweet potato chips… 😀

        Liked by 4 people

      • Jules says:

        OK since I thought this post was going to have a recipe anyway…

        This is what I did to make Sweet Potato chips:
        I lined my flat pan with parchment paper set the oven to 400f

        I sliced my potatoes as thinly as I could. Put ’em in a zip top with about a table spoon of veg oil. Then in a single layer put ’em on my pan. I kept the big ones at one end and the smaller at the other.

        About 8-10 minutes on one side. 5 after the flip take out the smaller ones so you don’t get too many charred pieces. Then another 3-5 minutes for the large ones you left in there.

        I didn’t bother with adding salt or any spice but right after you take ’em out when they are still warm is the best time to add that dusting on one side – I’d say was good enough.

        Just keep watch as your oven may differ from mine and you don’t want to set off your smoke detector 😀

        Hey we could add that to the snack food at the Saloon!

        Liked by 4 people

      • Great recipe, and simple! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

    • I have also been seeing a lot of “blame game” videos. I do think our governments could have collectively stopped this had they not put the economies first. Now the impact on the economies will be much worse due to lack of concise action. That is life. Stay well, Jules.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Jules says:

        In each age there are ‘Golden Moments’ – this whole tarnished episode is only saved by the ordinary people who are the true good hearts.

        The simple tasks of taking extra supplies to a place in need, all those taking in take out to save some of the smaller restaurants from complete collapse and all those keeping in touch with those shut in… etc.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Ritu says:

    Thank you for such an informative piece 💜

    Liked by 6 people

  5. What a great article. And it comes with a prompt! I may return with a response, though truth is, I’m supposed to be working. I apologize for these two, but, well…

    “Hey Pal! What d’ya know?”
    “Know I’m glad folks is mostly drinkin’ lemonade, elderberry tea an’ sech. Runnin’ a saloon kin be a lie-ability. Sometimes folks thet hang aroun’ bars git ta flappin’ their gums, tellin’ their truths.”
    “Ain’t truth tellin’ good?”
    “Matter a perspective, Kid. Most folks, ‘specially drinkers, tend ta tell half truths. An’ repeat. Like multiplyin’ fractions, the half truth gits smaller an’ smaller with each tellin’. An’ then there’s the inverse.”
    “In verse. Talkin’ poetically?”
    “Stretchin’ the truth.”
    “Fact is, Pal, we’re fine at the saloon, bein’ fictional an’ all.”
    “Yeah. The Ranch’s truly good.”

    Liked by 7 people

  6. Geoff says:

    The lies came early, came often.
    ‘You’ll like this.’
    ‘This won’t hurt.’
    ‘The tooth fairy won’t come if…’
    ‘Santa will be here tonight.’
    Not yet five and already losing credulity. And yet hanging on, keeping a sliver of the faith.
    And still they came.
    ‘You’ll like school.’
    ‘Maths is fun.’
    ‘You can do it.’
    So much duplicity had to rub off.
    ‘I didn’t do it.’
    ‘It wasn’t me.’
    They stopped hurting, except…
    ‘I love you.’
    Even that soul-deep deception wasn’t as bad as…
    ‘It’s nothing.’
    ‘I’ll be fine.’
    That’s when you realise it’s the truth that really hurts.

    Liked by 11 people

  7. jomz says:

    Great job on this piece! I learned a lot.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Charli Mills says:

    Such a fascinating history, H., including journalism and the spread of a virus. Anna Williams captivated me, the more I read about her. My 99 words pertains to her. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Anna Wessels Williams, Defiant by Charli Mills

    “Your sister is fine.” The physician dismissed Anna from the birthing room. When the baby died, Anna resolved to protect others from ignorance. She graduated from medical school, armed with a microscope.

    “Women seek husbands through higher education.” Society dismissed the scientific studies of women like Anna. Instead of finding a husband, she found her way into a labratory.

    “A woman is too sensitive to vote or accept burdens.” Anna traveled with a vial of rabies from Paris to New York to curb the disease from her lab. She didn’t let a lack of voting stall her life’s mission.

    Liked by 6 people

  9. This is very interesting information and well timed for me. I was planning to research the spread of the Spanish flu today [how amazing is that] and H. has saved me the trouble although I may go a bit deeper with my research. I will definitely write something for this. Great job!

    Liked by 5 people

  10. Really enjoyed your article, thanks. Appreciate especially learning about the unsung heroine Anna Williams.

    Having learnt only recently that the Spanish flu started in America, I’m waiting for a similar expose of what Trump calls the Chinese flu.

    I’ve channelled Hilaire Belloc for my 99-word story. Why? Because his verse “Matilda” about a girl who’s told so many lies no-one believes her when she cries for help features in my forthcoming novel set in a longstay psychiatric hospital. My Matilda character was born in 1919 and deaths from the Spanish flu and First World War cast a shadow over her childhood.

    I’ve been playing around with this bit of doggerel for a little while and managed to squeeze it into 99 words. Any feedback appreciated.

    Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home

    Convinced she told such dreadful lies
    They blocked their ears against her cries:
    The gentleman her mother wed
    Could not have done the things she said.
    So when the nuns beheld her sin
    They sent her to the looney bin.
    And there she languished fifty years
    As sweet delusions dried her tears,
    Compelled to entertain the nurses
    By reciting comic verses.
    As time went on and fashions changed
    Psychiatry was rearranged:
    The doors unlocked, and segregation
    Considered an abomination,
    Matilda might at last resume
    Her life. Or would she meet her doom?
    An inferno resurrected
    Will leave no-one unaffected.

    Liked by 7 people

  11. No concocted story this week but a tribute to two brilliant Australians who defied conventional wisdom and the phramaceutical companies to tell the truth about stomach ulcers and ultimately win a Nobel Prize for their work. Read on. https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/the-doctor-who-drank-infectious-broth-gave-himself-an-ulcer-and-solved-a-medical-mystery

    Liked by 7 people

  12. susansleggs says:

    Excellent article for these times. My husband’s maternal grandfather died of the Spanish flu in New York City. Interesting how we name things.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. susansleggs says:

    Excellent article for these times. My husband’s maternal grandfather died of the Spanish flu in New York City.
    Interesting how we name things; sort of like the serial killer labeled the Green River Killer in Seattle who hid only his first few bodies near the Green River.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Jim Borden says:

    thank you for this informative post; it’s a shame to see a profession as noble as journalism tainted by such practices. Not only back then, but at the present time as well.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think journalism has always been tainted at some level. In early American history, for examples, newspapers were *blatantly* partisan and didn’t even try to hide it. Sucks, but that’s why I believe an educated populace is so essential.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Charli Mills says:

        Sensational journalism misrepresented the West and created the romanticism that hides its true origins. Harper’s Weekly was more fiction than journalism at one time. I admire many of the small editors and publishers out west, though. The ones who took seriously their craft and journalism. From that, I believe environmental reporting emerged.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jim Borden says:

        Couldn’t agree more about the importance of education.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I have learned over the past three years, Jim, that you really can’t trust what is published in the press. It is a sad fact of our lives. It doesn’t seem as if there are any repercussions for “fake” news provided the newspaper or reporter is batting for the “right” team.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Jim Borden says:

        so where do you go to find out what is going on?

        Liked by 2 people

      • I am currently looking at the official sites, but I consider if the information makes sense in comparison to social media and other countries data. For example, our official number of new infections in SA yesterday was 82 people. I think, considering other figures and what I know about my country and the testing kits available, laboratory backlogs, etc. that this is probably quite understated. I think that China’s figures in there entirely look very suspicious given what is happening in the USA and Europe. I think it is a case of applying common sense.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Lol, China’s numbers could be real only if they’re executing everyone (which I think would leak). I know our American numbers and European numbers are absolutely screwed because there’s only so many tests, and plenty of people don’t have symptoms and thus won’t test.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, we have the same problem, very few test kits. Our numbers are creepy up though and so are our deaths.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah… I think they’re not expecting us to peak for some time yet, and I’m hoping everyone’s food stocks last a while!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jim Borden says:

        I agree; it is hard to trust some of the numbers that are being reported. I’m also not sure if it is outright deception that makes the numbers less believable or if it is just a matter of different reporting methods and delays.

        I think bottom line is that people need to isolate themselves as best they can until the worst of this is over.

        Liked by 2 people

  15. papershots says:

    Thanks for this post. Love the ending i must admit. i can just “picture” it… haha! 🙂 Will also share the story i wrote for the Ranch about taking charge, as it also deals with fake news. Thanks.

    https://papershots.org/2020/03/30/in-which-a-character-takes-charge/

    Liked by 4 people

  16. denmaniacs4 says:

    Excellent article. I’m not sure my little fabrication totally reflects the prompt but in a way, it might, sort of…depends I guess on what the truth is and what a lie might be, or become…Before
    “You know that saying: today is the first day…?”
    “Of the rest of your life. Yeah…I know it…”
    “Know where its from?”
    “Ah…not really…some kind of group mantra…?”
    “Good guess. A cult. Well, a self-help organization that went way off the rails. Synanon.”
    “Okay. Why mention it?”
    “Well, here’s the thing…”
    “You gonna do your Joe Biden impression?”
    “Funny…haha funny…but no, my point is that it’s true.”
    “And that and a dime used to buy you a cup of coffee.”
    “Perfect. That’s history. The old price of coffee. And it simply doesn’t matter. Like COVID-19.”
    “You’ve lost me.”
    “Precisely.”

    Liked by 2 people

  17. dgkaye says:

    Great information. I just read something similar today about the Spaniards the only ones who were willing to tell the truth, and go figure it’s dubbed the Spanish Flu. Yes, history seems to remarkably repeating itself 😦

    Liked by 3 people

  18. This isn’t medical, but since we’re doing journalism, I wanted to celebrate this woman who exposed the cruel consequences of the British government’s hostile environment to immigration, with people who had been brought here from the West Indies as children, paid their taxes for years – after working in the NHS – losing their jobs, medical care and forcibly sent to the countries of their birth, even though they had no connections there.

    Liked by 4 people

  19. I didn’t know about Woodrow Wilson’s role in the Spanish Flu pandemic. He should be vilified by history for that. It was unconscionable to knowingly contribute to the deaths of millions and millions of people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading, and glad you learned some stuff! Wilson’s an interesting figure, and there’s so many ways to interpret him. There’s the “aloof, cold, ambitious” interpretation vs. the “intelligent, courageous, selfless” interpretation – and when looking at him holistically, it’s SO hard to choose which one was true! It makes him quite compelling to read about, no matter the final judgment.

      Like

  20. Norah says:

    Thanks for an interesting article. I had read quite a bit of the information before. The Conversation here in Australia ran an article on it recently and I was quite fascinated about how it was hidden and then revealed. The timing wasn’t good — a double-whammy for those in the trenches. I guess it never is. Hopefully, we’ll lick this one before it licks us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed! Hopefully people in general will follow public health recommendations, we’ll keep everything dialed back, and eventually produce a vaccine. The vaccine is MUCH easier for us to produce now than back then, so that’s a bonus for us.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Norah says:

        Yes. Better times now in many ways, that’s for sure. No matter how much we complain, I’d rather live now than then. And not just because I’m alive now. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  21. Thank you for this excellent, fascinating post –
    historical contexts and many different perspectives, including the significant contributions of scientists and medical researchers like Anna Williams.

    The post and comments by the other bloggers recalled the HeLa cell line– ethical issues of race and class in medical research.

    The HeLa cell line used extensively in scientific research was derived from cervical cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer on in 1951. The cells were taken without her knowledge or consent — common practice at that time.
    Re polio virus: The HeLa cell line was used to successfully grow the polio virus, leading to the development of the vaccine.

    Planning to read more, including Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.

    Thank you!

    Saifun

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just finished “Immortal Life” – overall, I’d say it is very well written (probably better written than “the great influenza”), but because the material was harder for Skloot to research, there are a few bits that felt like filler. Definitely suggest reading it, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. I’d say there’s a bit of writer’s flair here… 😀 😀 I’m sorry I missed this prompt, but love your historical synopses.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Into the Past: The Not-so-Spanish Spanish Flu — Carrot Ranch Literary Community – Truth Troubles says:

    […] via Into the Past: The Not-so-Spanish Spanish Flu — Carrot Ranch Literary Community […]

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  24. Dr Namrata says:

    An interesting read. I was aware of the fact that Spanish flu is nothing to do with it’s origin in Spain. I liked how the whole story cooked up and the misinformation spread worldwide. Today we are facing the same situation and I hope the virus gets mutated soon and not be as contagious as it is today.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Fascinating history lesson, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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