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.
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.
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/.