During this current pandemic, the news is filled with references to the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. In my book, We Answered With Love: Pacifist Service in World War I, Mary Peabody, a Radcliffe student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is corresponding with Leslie Hotson, a Harvard student, working with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in France, They were both affected by the outbreak of this deadly flu. The following is excerpted from their story.
In October, 1918, Leslie received a letter from Mary that left him stunned. Buried within her usual breezy news and encouragement for his work, she commented that she and her sister had been deathly ill with influenza, but luckily, both survived.
The first cases in Boston had appeared in August among soldiers infected with the virus. At the Boston Naval Yards, more than seven thousand men were in transit, living in overcrowded barracks and dormitory ships. Within two days, sixty-eight men had reported ill. The flu spread quickly through the close quarters of the military units stationed in the area. By September 4, the epidemic reached the 16,000 men of the Naval Radio School living in the Harvard dorms and camped on Cambridge Common. A few weeks earlier, Mary had written that “the atmosphere here in Cambridge is so strange this fall; the Radio School is all quarantined for Spanish Influenza—a very catching and serious disease that has already taken the toll of many lives; they say they have it under control here but that it is now spreading to Devens and other places.”
The disease spread quickly. On September 3, the first civilian was admitted to Boston City Hospital. As people gathered in the streets for rallies and bond drives and as soldiers and sailors gathered to prepare to go overseas, they infected each other. The disease hit swiftly and without warning. A person who was seemingly healthy in the morning could be dead by evening. Those who did not die quickly often suffocated from the buildup of fluid in their lungs. There was no cure; doctors and nurses could only hope to treat the symptoms. Survival was a matter of luck or some other unknown component of a person’s constitution. Unlike other forms of influenza which strike mainly the elderly and young children, this strain was most deadly in young adults, the very people who were crowded together in troop transports and living in dormitories at colleges.
Most of the doctors and nurses in this country had been conscripted or had enlisted in the military. Massachusetts was initially able to use medical students and to bring in medical help from surrounding towns and other states, but this source of aid soon dried up as the disease spread down the east coast and beyond, and as medical personnel themselves succumbed to the disease. Emergency hospitals were created in a futile attempt to accommodate the growing number of patients. The Red Cross formed a National Committee on Influenza to try to use nurses, volunteers, and medical supplies more effectively, but this effort was insufficient to stem the spread of the epidemic. The dead were left in gutters and stacked in caskets on the front porches. Trucks drove by to pick up the corpses. Public gatherings were forbidden. People hid indoors, afraid to interact with their neighbors.
Leslie’s unit was in the country and only mildly affected by the epidemic. The first outbreak in France had occurred in July. In Paris, the government closed the schools but was unwilling to expand the quarantine to avoid hurting morale. In October, at its peak, more than 4,500 people in Paris died of influenza or related pneumonia. In many French cities, more than half of the families had at least one victim. Throughout France, the AFSC workers volunteered for hospital duties and provided services to the sick and dying in their neighborhoods. Fortunately, only five members of the AFSC died of the influenza.
By December, the virus had mutated, and another new and lethal variant began to spread. In Paris, in early 1919, more than three thousand people died from this wave. By the time it ended, the influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 had killed as many as fifty million people worldwide—many more than died as a direct result of the war.
On October 22, 1918, as Mary was recovering, she wrote to Leslie,
“I had a chance to do a lot of thinking while I was sick. As I lay there knowing I had a disease of which hundreds were dying, I seemed to see life more really than I had ever done before…and I realized the immense place that the little things of every day occupy. I looked at a clock and a book and thought how many generations of men had lived thru’ all kinds of dangers to create those things that we take for granted. The sun shone into the room where Helen and I lay and we could hear the funeral processions clattering by at frequent intervals up Brattle Street—then the children in the next yard would scream and laugh with joy at their play. How strange it all seemed…and when I went down to the Square the first time and saw the life and bustle, I was shocked that the world could be so heartless and carefree when hundreds were dying and being killed….How wonderful life is—so fragile and short—men must have opportunities to get more than the necessaries, the swamping details—these are not life—life is big and rich and full; and so few people have a chance to realize it. When I was up and around again I had the burning desire to stop people I met and tell them how happy they ought to be that they were alive in this beautiful world.”