Behind the Story

Everyone wore a mask during the perilous days of the epidemic

The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918


“…the story of the 1918 influenza virus is not simply one of havoc, death, and desolation, of a society fighting a war against nature superimposed on a war against another human society.”

A black title on an orange spine flashed at me from a dusty shelf, drawing me closer, even though I was merely marking time until my husband, the bibliophile, was ready to leave the dank used bookstore on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley. I pulled the book from the shelf. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry published in 2004 by Viking Penguin. It was the first book that I bought to research the background for my embryonic novel, From Shtetl to Wall Street. I flipped open to page 5 in the prologue and read the snippet above.

Sparks ignited, and I could envision the turmoil that would be the backdrop for my novel. The embryo of Emma’s story developed into an historical novel based on relentless research, some of which I’ll share in other entries.

It turns out that the origin of the great flu epidemic was not Spain as I had assumed.  It is said to have originated as a new influenza virus in Haskell County, Kansas early in 1918. It was a changed form of avian virus that adapted to humans via bird droppings in the water system or through an intermediary mammal such as swine.

The virus likely spread to Camp Funston, now Fort Riley in Kansas, site of the first known outbreak in the U.S.  From there it was tracked “outward—to other cantonments, to Europe, and to the US civilian population.” (p.456) It killed an estimated fifty million people and possibly as many as one hundred million, more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history.

The flu virus that we know today normally kills elderly people and infants, but this perverse disease wiped out young adults in the prime of life, those in their twenties and thirties. Some estimates report that the virus killed eight to ten percent of all living young adults.

While many suffered an extreme flu with terrific pain, fever and delusions, they recovered within a week. They were the fortunate ones. Those with virulent influenza suffered unmentionable agony, bleeding from the ears, nose, and eye sockets. People spoke of the Black Death with some bodies turning almost black.

Fear of being in public was so strong that institutions closed and families stayed inside, avoiding the normal caring activity of bringing food to a sick neighbor. The flu wiped out entire families in the course of a day. From sunrise to sunset, one couldn’t predict who would live that day.

Bodies piled up from severe shortage of burial coffins. Babies were buried in cardboard boxes. Soldiers in camps were buried in mass graves.

Yet, the pandemic was the “first great collision between nature and modern science.” (p.5) The story of the scientists who are featured in this book is one of prodigious determination, their work and that of their predecessors who had developed vaccines and antitoxins pushed “close to the knowledge of today.” (p.5)

Jon M. Barry created a compelling story and one that may have touched the forebears of many us alive today. It was never spoken of in my family, but others of you may have ancestors who were touched by the pandemic.

Comments are closed