Resch Reflects on 1918 Flu Pandemic
History teacher Zoe Resch's lecture on the Spanish Flu of 1918, an annual installment of the History Department's Evans-Rood lecture series, takes on a new tenor as we live through the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.
Although the place of origin of the Spanish Flu, an avian flu, is not universally agreed upon, Resch states that it likely originated in the “very early months of 1918...probably among wild boar [and] domesticated birds on the farmland out [in Kansas].” Resch continues, “There was a big war camp nearby where soldiers were preparing to go overseas, because the US had joined [World War I]. [The flu] spread to the camp, and then the men leaving the camp spread it to other camps.”
After an initial spike in cases, the flu died down for a couple of months until it reappeared in Europe late in the summer. This time around, however, Resch explains that the flu had “mutated,” becoming “a much fiercer virus in terms of its lethality.” This strain was ultimately responsible for the 50 million deaths that would follow.
In late August, the flu returned to the United States, hitting port cities like Philadelphia especially hard. Fort Devens, a small army camp outside of Boston, was also heavily affected. Resch remarks: “[The flu] just ravaged the place...hundreds of soldiers died in that camp in a week or two.” Resch describes the soldiers’ bodies as being “stacked like cordwood all over the camp because they didn't know where to place them.”
Part of the peculiarity of the Spanish Flu lies in its at-risk group. Unlike most flus, which are most deadly to young children and the elderly, Resch notes that the Spanish Flu “killed people in the prime of life (20's, 30's, 40's) more than any other age group.” At the time of the flu, antibiotics had not yet been invented, leaving those infected with the flu no other defenses besides their immune system. Resch elaborates, “Once [the flu] hit somebody's lungs, [and] it turned to pneumonia, they were gone.”
Despite the lethality of the flu, the United States federal government, preoccupied with the ongoing war, did little to stop its spread. Resch emphasizes that “the government was conducting a desperate war. And so there was no way that President Wilson or the military felt like they could afford to basically shut down the war.” Resch explains that the government was worried that speaking about the flu would “cause panic in the public. Why cause panic? And most importantly, why cause panic and slow down the war effort?”
At the local level, public health officials were unable to accomplish much due to a lack of trust from the public. In 1918, public health was still relatively new and seen with suspicion by Americans. Resch stresses that “Americans have always valued their freedom,” resulting in “a lot of pushback” from citizens that included: “You can't tell me to quarantine. You can't tell me to wear a mask. You can't tell me not to take public transportation.”
Public health services also suffered from a lack of funding. As Resch puts it, “[public health] is not glamorous ... if you’re the public health department, you're [fairly] invisible until there's [an emergency]. And then everyone's like, 'Where are you public health?' 'Why haven't you done anything?'” In order for public health services to be effective, Resch emphasizes that “we have to give them the resources [they require].”
Thus, citizens did little to combat the spread of the flu, continuing to aid the war effort. Many cities held big parades to sell liberty bonds to fund the war, after which the infection rate would skyrocket. Resch details, “These huge parades would involve hundreds of thousands of people, all in big crowds, [with] nobody wearing a mask.” People also worked at wartime factories in crowded shifts around the clock, building ships, munitions, armaments, etc. All of these conditions combined to form what Resch calls “the perfect storm” for the spread of the flu.
In New Haven, the peak of the flu fell around the middle of October into November of 1918. November 11 marked the end of World War I, and the armistice “pushed [the flu] off the front pages and sort of ... started the forgetting pro-
cess,” says Resch. In the case of the flu, Resch stresses that it “really was a situation where the flu was one of many terrible things.” Following the peak in October, the flu continued to mutate into 1919 and 1920, but its decreased lethality in combination with the lack of “fresh people” to spread it significantly reduced its impact on people’s daily life.
Up until a couple of years before the 100 year anniversary of the pandemic, the Spanish Flu had been largely forgotten. Before then, Resch observed that “there really wasn’t that much [written on the flu]... it generally was left out of even history text-
books.” As to why that was, Resch theorizes: “It was such a painful event that we sort of wrapped it up into our national memory of the war and moved on."
For additional information about the 1918 Spanish Flu, Resch recommends checking out “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” by John M. Barry.