Why Was The 1918 Flu Pandemic Forgotten?

Eric Medlin

History instructor. Writer. Rising star in the world of affordable housing.

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30 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    Gen-X here. Mom was born juuuuust before WWII ended. Grandparents grew up during Great Depression.

    I heard stories about relatives that had died before my grandparents were born. They were used as reasons that we had sliced raw onions on various dishes. Onions, we were told, helped fight against the flu.

    (Mom is still inclined to put sliced onions all over everything if left to her own devices, for what it’s worth.)Report

  2. I certainly agree that there’s no way to predict how or whether covid will be remembered if it somehow recedes (or is eradicated) within a year or two.

    I’ll suggest, though, that “lived memory” of the pandemic will probably last for several generations, even if the cause (the pandemic) is ostensibly forgotten. Here, I’m thinking along the lines of Jaybird’s comment People may continue practices that may have originated in reaction to the pandemic without necessarily “remembering” the pandemic. (As I read Jaybird’s comment, his grandparents actually remembered the 1918 pandemic. It wasn’t just “lived memory.” But I suspect practices live on.)

    I’ll also suggest that the pandemic was not quite as forgotten as some might think. Maybe because I am trained as a US historian, I’ve known about that pandemic for a very long time. To be honest, though, other than knowing that it happened and killed a lot of people, I didn’t know about developments such as St. Louis’s social distancing policies.Report

    • InMD in reply to gabriel conroy says:

      My hope is that it really pushes the trends towards telework already in progress. This could be the watershed where people say ‘wow it really can work’ even if 50 or 60 years from now no one remembers why exactly we switched over from cubicle farms and stopped making giant office buildings.

      I’m also hopeful about positive changes to how we structure benefits especially including non-white collar but obviously the politics of that are much different and more difficult.Report

  3. Susara Blommetjie says:

    I was also very much aware of the 1918 pandemic. My parents were born in 1939, so *their* parents would have lived it. I should ask my mother how much she was told about it.

    One should also keep in mind that the 1918 flu came on the back of WW1 – so there was lots of other very dramatic events unfolding the whole time.

    As for myself I knew about it mostly because of a general interest in both history and biology. The two topics sortof coalesce in the rather morbid topic of pandemics.Report

  4. Michael Cain says:

    All four of my Iowa grandparents were born in the 1890s, so were old enough to live through all of WWI, the flu pandemic, the 1920s, the Great Depression, and WWII. Note that historically, the “Roaring 20s” was an almost strictly urban thing. Rural America spent the 20s in a recession verging on depression, then collapsed into the Great Depression. As a kid I heard stories related to all of those except the pandemic. I can think of a variety of reasons for that.

    One grandfather was old enough to fight in WWI. His unit was almost all Iowa boys. They continued to hold annual reunions at least into the late 1950s. I can remember attending at least one: a park full of geezers stuffed into old uniforms and a zillion descendants having a huge picnic. Personal memories intentionally retained for the long haul.

    They were from a coal mining region in Iowa. The modest coal seam was close enough to the surface, and they were at a convenient location for refueling coal-fired trains on the Chicago-Kansas City route. People were injured and died all the time: coal mining is a dangerous business. I remember as a kid noticing how many of the men in my grandparents’ generation were missing fingers or hands, had serious problems walking, etc. I heard about relatives who died in mining accidents, but not about people who died from the flu.

    The Great Depression (and the 1920s recession) was a period of grinding poverty that shaped people’s lives for most of 20 years. One of my grandfathers owned the grocery in the small town. He could get credit during the Depression when other people couldn’t, and took on a lot of debt to keep the store operating, often at a loss. I remember going to visit at an odd time of year in the early 1960s (not Christmas, not the usual summer trip). There was a sort of low-level celebration going on all weekend: lots of people my grandparents’ age coming by the house, talking quietly, shaking hands. My grandfather was celebrating repayment of all the store’s Depression-era debt. The Depression shaped his life for 30 years.

    WWII had lots of impacts aside from those who went into the military. Men moved to fill jobs at munitions and other production facilities, with occasional visits home. Farmers changed their crops, often involuntarily. In a rural area where cars had become important, gasoline rationing bit. Big changes that went on for years.

    The photographs everyone sees for the pandemic were city things. The flu might have been just as lethal in rural Iowa, but it happened in people’s houses or tiny local hospitals, not in memorable massive wards. There is some chance that people’s lasting memories of Covid-19 are going to be the pictures — I have seen a bunch recently — of empty field hospitals we built but (so far) didn’t need.Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to Michael Cain says:

      I thought I read that rural people were most harmed by the flu because they lacked some of the resistance of those living in more urban areas, but that they might become infected in more urban areas due to economic dislocation and military mobilization. Also might be relevant that some people believe the Spanish flu began in Kansas.Report

  5. I think it depends on what happens. If COVID becomes a regularly recurring thing, as some health experts expect, this outbreak will be remembered.

    I think the main difference is that in 1918 we had a war on. And we weren’t far removed from when disease outbreaks regularly slaughtered lots of people. As Kristin has noted, our age is *unusual* in that we haven’t had the kind of pandemics that used to kill massive numbers of people. Now we have one.Report

  6. fillyjonk says:

    There were other outbreaks of bad flus – 1957, 1968, and 1976. I asked my mom (born 1936) on the phone last night if she remembered the 1957 flu. “Yeah,” she responded, “Your father and I were already dating then. We were in college. He had a car, he drove us to the place* they were doing vaccines. We waited in a very long line for a long time and eventually got vaccinated.” (And that was that. I wish we had a vaccine for this thing)

    (*She didn’t remember the location but I’d not be surprised if it was whatever served as the Washtenaw County health department in those days).

    I suspect that in the 1918 flu, outside of cities, lower mobility meant it wasn’t as big a risk. My great-grandparents lived on a farm in 1918. Their oldest kids would have left home (one in the Infantry in France; my grandmother would have been newly-married and gone by that time). They got to town maybe once a month; the rest of the time they lived on what they grew or raised or what they had on the shelf, or infrequent deliveries of things.

    My great-uncle who was in the infantry was twice unlucky (or twice lucky, I suppose, that he survived both events): he was at the tail end of a gas attack in France, and then coming home on a troop ship he caught a mild case of the ’18 flu. But my mom tells me his lungs were forever damaged and he died in his early 50s after contracting pneumonia.

    I wonder idly how this time is going to affect me once it’s over. One big thing: having LOTS of canned/dried/preserved food on the shelves, more than I would have in the before-times. And being as much of a packrat as before – knowing I can’t get out easily for some stuff, and panic-buying/delivery services being slammed making it harder to get stuff. Also I think I’m just going to wind up more of a hermit – why bother to go out when a lot of people seem to get on the news for being foolish in public spaces, and when you can mail-order much of the stuff you need?Report

  7. Chip Daniels says:

    History books like to portray history as a series of dramatic inflection points like wars or inventions like telegraphs and rocket launches so they often miss the connections between these things and the slower moving trends.

    Like, it was only in the past few years that I have become aware of how WWI accelerated the collapse of the old monarchies, and spurred the development of everything modern, from modern art to architecture to fascism.

    I recall in architecture school reading some of the anti-city screeds that the early modern architects like Wright wrote, and they saw cities as these foul cesspools of filth and disease. They never referenced the flu pandemic by name, but for the audience they were writing for, they didn’t need to- everyone knew it already.

    A lot of the things we saw developing in the 1920s and 30s were premised on cleanliness and purity- everything from eugenics to public health, to the rise of suburbs where people could escape the foul cities.

    In other words, I think these things all had the pandemic and WWI as their unspoken origin points. When people spoke about modernism the audience knew what the new things were standing in opposition to- to the old regime that sent millions of young men to pointless death, to the crowded filthy cities.Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      Counterpoint: Maybe cities were foul cesspools of filth and disease, at least until sanitation departments emerged to remove trash, built out sanitary sewage systems and supply clean drinking water. When Wright moved to Chicago, all of the waste (including runoff from the livestock yards) was disposed in the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, it would have been awful to smell and would have been associated with TB and cholera.

      I’ve been thinking about these things for a different reason: the public health laws and institutions that were used to address infectious disease appear to be a hundred years old or so. Putting a placard on someone’s house with the words “diseased person within/ stay away” might not be a great fit.Report

  8. Saul Degraw says:

    WHO just warned that COVID might never go away: https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus-may-never-away-181100789.html

    The full ramifications of this, if true, are going to yet to be seen. Maybe we will get a COVID vaccine that protects from likely but not all strains. Maybe it will require less dense restaurants and bars. Maybe mask wearing will become the norm at certain times of the year like winter to help reduce spread. Maybe the open office is dead and we will see more and more working from home.

    FWIW, I think must people support shelter-in-place and the current restrictions. A lot of the evidence suggests that people will going out less well before the official orders were set. I have anecdotal evidence that also confirms this from my observations. One of my clients owns a restaurant. Her restaurant traditionally has been jampacked with long waits and it is a big space, been this way for years. She told me business was down 60 percent in February and 85 percent in March. I also think that a lot of the protesting masks and shelter-in-place is more about partisanship and owning the libs than anything else and it is a minority view.


    That being said, there is a difference between support and willpower and it is clear that stay at home is starting to wear thin even for a lot of anti-Trump liberals. I had to go to the office yesterday because I needed to drop off physical documents and I ended up staying the entire day. It was a refreshing change. I have done the zoom dinner party thing and I find them damn depressing. Zoom is a stimulation of actual socializing.

    But there are still some small strong currents of stay at home, never go anywhere and I suspect there is a partisan signaling aspect to this too. A hardcore shelter in place attitude makes you the opposite of a Trumpist.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      So… you breaking quarantine is no prob bob but others doing so are partisan hacks trying to own the libs?Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

        JFC, that isn’t what I am saying at all but you obviously dislike me and choose to distort everything I say so fuck off.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          You’ve been trotting out the same bullshit here for weeks and refuse to consider an opinion other than your own. It’s not about liking or not liking you. It’s about not liking bullshit. I’ve distorted nothing. I repeat your words back to you and if they sound ridiculous, that’s on you, not me.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

        First of all, the order is work from home when you can. This is the first time I went in for weeks. Second of all, I was not the only one in the office.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          But you hung out at the office longer than was necessary because of “quarantine fatigue”, no? How is that any better than folks who can’t work and earn money wanting the ability to do so?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      …I suspect there is a partisan signaling aspect to this too. A hardcore shelter in place attitude makes you the opposite of a Trumpist.

      This would be very, very bad.

      If belief in wanting to get back to work makes you the opposite of the opposite of a Trumpist, then looking at the unemployment numbers tells me that there are going to be a lot of the opposite of the opposite of Trumpists out there, all other things being equal.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

        I get lost in all the levels of meta, myself. Seems like the better explanation for this stuff is that there is a faction of American culture which views governmental (or even private) impositions on their behavior as a form of tyranny; and there’s a faction of American culture which views pragmatic caution as a lever to ratchet up impositions on behavior. All this was true in 1918, long before Trump and the invention of the anti-anti-anti-anti-meta-analysis.

        That people can (and do!) map politics *onto* normal human behavior doesn’t mean that narrow partisan political interests are the cause of that behavior.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

        I want a safe but expedient re-opening that takes into the real costs of closure, including the health, safety, and lives of those more impacted than I am.

        Locals were (and still are in many places) championing our local Democratic leadership, despite mounting evidence of flaws in their approach. NJ is slowly starting to roll back restrictions. None of what is happening is going to make me support Trump and likely not Republican challengers, but my support for the Democratic pols currently in power is really waning. Their leadership has been weak and, at times, they seem more interested in their own fame and press than actually, well, leading.

        Takes like Saul don’t help. If you’re going to call me a monster for having a perspective different from your own, I don’t know how kindly I will great you when you knock on my door campaigning.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

          I like the idea of ubiquitous masks, ubiquitous hand sanitizer dispensers, and ubiquitous glove-wearing.

          I still can’t believe that it’s still so freakin’ hard to get decent masks. I’m wearing masks made by a loved one with a sewing machine. Where in the hell are the damn mypillow masks that they made such a big deal out of promoting? Why is it still so freakin’ hard to get a decent mask?!?Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

            because the government isn’t allowed to half-ass things and blame it on the user when their half-ass thing doesn’t work.

            you and me, we tie a t-shirt around our face, we keep in mind that it’s our own half-ass answer and we act accordingly. But if you get something that’s approved by the government you expect it to work, and you make plans based on it working, and you assume it is carrying some of the margin of error, and when that turns out not to be true you’re in a bad spot.

            Which means that the stuff the government approves has got to be done to a spec, and that spec has to be written properly, and the testing has to be done and certified, and this all takes time and costs money, and when you get people who’ve been used to having a couple years to figure all this out they maybe don’t have an idea of How To Work Hard And Fast that’s appropriate to the situation.Report

  9. Rufus F. says:

    I was maybe overly aware of the Spanish Flu because my great-grandfather contracted it while interviewing soldiers in Northern France in 1918 and survived it and I’m rewriting a book on him. I’m always surprised though when Internet writers will say “This is the First Time in World History that” something happened which already happened a bunch of times in world history.Report

  10. CJColucci says:

    A little over a week ago, a 100-year-old man died of the virus on Long Island, lucid until the end. He knew the end was coming and railed against our government for its lack of preparation. His twin brother had died in infancy during the Spanish Flu epidemic, so their lives and deaths book-ended the two great pandemics (barely) within living memory.Report

  11. lyle says:

    Actually this would not be surprising since as the article notes lived memorys are more acutly remembered by descendents. An example from another field Vicksburg MS fell to the union on July 4 1863, and the city did not celebrate it again until july 4 1963. I contend this relates to when there are no longer enough folks living either experienced and event or heard the story first or second hand. (I think stories passed down in families must stay in memory better). It would be an interesting study to see how well societies that are in the pre-written language remember events compared to post written language societies.Report

  12. lyle says:

    On a different subject plauges and pandemics do eventually simmer down over time, the black death did so with about a 20-30 year recurrence rate as new population arose that did not have antibodies. The same appears to be true of its earlier form that struck the eastern empire in the 500s. So the quotes need to more say that we may have to contend with it until herd immunity arises without a vaccine which might be several years. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death It is interesting that the recurrence period seems to relate to generational change.

    As an aside here is a list from wikipedia of epidemics known during history. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemicsReport