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Stories from the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic from Ethnographic Collections

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A woman in a nurse's uniform and a mask stands by the bed of a patient. Other beds can be seen in the background with sheets forming tents over the beds. The beds appear to be on a large enclosed porch.
Influenza ward, Walter Reed Hospital, Wash., D.C. [Nurse taking patient’s pulse], ca. November 1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //
The Library of Congress collections contain stories of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic as told by ordinary people, documented by folklorists, linguists, and others as they collected personal histories and folklore. Several of these are available online and a selection will be presented here, with links at the end under “Resources” where more can be found. You may also be interested in a recent webcast from the Library of Congress, “John M. Barry on ‘The Great Influenza,'”  April 7, 2020.

In the Federal Writers’ Project, a work project of the Great Depression, material relating to folklore and social-ethnic studies was collected and shaped by John A. Lomax, Benjamin A. Botkin, and Morton Royce. The narratives, collected in writing by writers working during the Great Depression, include a number of accounts of the influenza pandemic. For example, Jane Leary, a writer working among the Irish Americans in Lynn, Massachusetts, collected an account from shoemaker James Hughes. From the 1930 census we know that he was born in about 1882 and seems to have immigrated to the United States from the Province of Ulster as a young man. Leary had a creative way of attempting to write his accent with question marks in brackets to indicate where she was unsure of her transcription. If you have trouble understanding it, try reading it aloud:

D’ya remimber the flu thet come the tame a the war? Alwiays a war brengs somethin’ an’ I alwiays thought thet flu wuzn’t jest the flu. It wuz more laike the bumbatic pliague [bubonic plague]. Anywiays a lotta thim thet daied a it tirned black, jest laike thiey wuz said ta heve tirned black in Ireland in ‘46 an’ ‘47 whin thiey hed the bumbatic pliague thiere. [?]

Thra [three] months the rage a it wuz hiere in this city. Down in Philadelphia an’ arou’ thet wiay, I hierd it wuz a lot the worse, Thiere I guess thiey daied laike fleas. [?]

Wuz biad anough hiere too. The paople wuz scared iverywhiere. Most iverybody wore a bag with somethin‘ in it ta pravent [(prev/ent)?] gettin’ it. Somethin’ laike moth balls thiey wuz thet wuz in thet bag. I wore one laike all the rest. Iverybody wuz adrekin’ whiskey too ta pravent it. I balave (believe) it helped too, Inywiey, Inywiay it did ma. [?]

“I wuz in Boston whin I felt it comin’ on ma. I took a coupla drenks an’ ya know I hardly felt’em atall. Iny other tame an’ I’d a bin afeelin’ good from the drenks I took, but thim I didn’t feel atall.

“Whin I got ta Lynn, I took a couple more, an’ thim I din’t feel neither. Jest laike I niver hedaone. Whin I get home, I said to ma wife, ‘I got the flu an’ whin I get in bed, I wont ya ta give ma some more a this whiskey ta drenk.’

She did an’ did I sweat? I hed ta kape [(ke/ep)?] changin’ ma naightclothes two, thra tames. But ya know, it done the trick all raight. I wuz a lot better in the mornin’. [?]

The full transcription of James Hughes’s narrative, “The Influenza Epidemic” can be found at the link in the online presentation American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 (2,847).

This story tells of some of the folk remedies that people tried when there was no conventional medicine to turn to. With little knowledge of how to fight the invisible enemy of this frightening illness, people naturally turned to traditional advice handed down through the generations. The camphor in moth balls was thought to be protective against disease. If the smell kept other people at a distance perhaps it did some good! Alcoholic drink was also commonly used as a remedy for various illnesses, though likely it just made sick people feel a bit better.

A conductor on a trolly wearing a mask interacts with two men who are preparing to board. One of the men wears a mask, the other does not.
Precautions taken in Seattle, Wash., during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic would not permit anyone to ride on the street cars without wearing a mask. 260,000 of these were made by the Seattle Chapter of the Red Cross which consisted of 120 workers, in three days (detail), ca. 1918-1919. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Personal accounts like this one provide a story of a time when the world faced a disease that people were not well equipped to deal with. An estimated 675,000 Americans died, and approximately 50 million died worldwide. This is a part of our history that holds some lessons that should be taken to heart as we face the COVID-19 pandemic today.

When this extremely deadly strain of influenza appeared in early 1918 there was little to be done to stop its spread. The study of viruses was in its infancy. The first scientific study showing evidence of a viral disease in human beings took place in 1900 when it was shown that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes. But no one knew precisely what viruses were or how they worked. At this time influenza was commonly thought to be transmitted by bacteria, as the bacterial infections that often accompany the illness were mistaken for the cause. Vaccines for the flu were decades away. Worse than that, no one imagined that the flu could take on forms that were so deadly. The movement of people around the world during and after the war meant that the disease could not be easily contained.

Given how quickly this influenza developed into pneumonia, it is not surprising that some people thought it had to be something other than the flu. Recent DNA research on the virus has shown that it was indeed influenza, an H1N1 variety similar to the one that caused a pandemic in 2009. (For more on this see Douglas Jordan, et al, “The Deadliest Flu: The Complete Story of the Discovery and Reconstruction of the 1918 Pandemic Virus,”  Center for Disease Control and Prevention resource.)

It is not known with certainty where this flu originated, but a widely accepted theory, originally proposed by Dr. Edwin Jordan in 1927, is that it developed in the Midwestern United States in about January 1918. Influenza was causing illness in military troops preparing to go to war who likely carried it to Europe. It was called the “Spanish flu,” but it seems that the Spanish newspapers were first to report it to the public only because they were less affected by wartime censorship of information. Resources from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention provide a detailed history of the 1918-1919 pandemic and the research on the virus in a series of online articles.

An account in the The Federal Writers’ Project: Folklore Project Histories, Dr. Curtis Atkinson of Wichita Falls, Texas, and collected by Ethel Dulaney provides a physician’s description of the disease. Dr. Atkinson was the Post Surgeon at the hospital at Call Field, Texas, a military airfield and training facility southwest of Wichita Falls during the war. He remembered the day that the severe form of influenza arrived. He described how quickly the illness developed and explains how he and the staff responded:

“When the ‘flu’ epidemic struck Call Field, Sunday, December, 1918—the boys began to come down very rapidly—-A football game was in progress—The commanding officer immediately ordered the game stopped and sentinels posted at the gate of the field with orders that no one was to be admitted. —-It was very hard for the citizens of Wichita Falls to learn that a military quarantine could not be evaded. Within an hour the two ambulances were very busy taking men from the different parts of the camp to the hospital, and by the next day the hospital was filled to its capacity—-All enlisted men of the medical department were placed in tents and barracks used for hospital purposes. Other barracks were available—-and immediately transferred into an emergency hospital. After we began using this emergency hospital the sick men were sent there first, and those that became very ill or developed pneumonia were moved to the hospital proper, and the convalescents from the hospital proper were moved to the emergency hospital. One ambulance was kept busy at this work. There were so many men stricken with the ‘flu’ that the regular routine of the flying instruction was nearly at a standstill. On account of this arrangement no soldier in Call Field suffered from the lack of medical attention, and the death rate from the ‘flu’ epidemic was next to the lowest of any field or camp in the United States.“

[Pages 3-4,  The full transcript of Dr. Atkinson’s narrative is available at this link.  It may be easiest to read in the pdf version of the transcript.]

This story shows that by this time in the epidemic this doctor understood the importance of outbreak containment and of identifying the sickest patients quickly. Of course, it was unwise to hold a football game at all, but measures such as that were used unevenly in the US in 1918.

In a recent blog in Folklife Today, Lisa Taylor wrote about Alice Leona Mikel Duffield who served as an Army nurse in Camp Pike, Arkansas during World War I, “Pandemic: A Woman on Duty.” Duffield told what it was like to be in a hospital overwhelmed by severely ill patients during the pandemic and to deal with death on a daily basis.  She learned not to dwell on the dying too much but to get on and take care of the patients in front of her.

Stories from 1918 are a reminder of the courage of ordinary people facing a disease that no one understood very well and from which they had little protection. This is not only true of medical people like Dr. Atkinson and Alice Leona Mikel Duffield but average citizens looking out for others during the crisis.

In the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, Dean Gambill of Sparta, North Carolina tells a story about taking a journey by train to get work as a miner during the pandemic. The story starts at about 29 minutes into part one of his interview with folklorist Patrick Mullen. Dean’s wife Estelle also participates in this interview, but not this particular story, as this occurred before their marriage. At one stop on the trip Dean Gambill happened on a man who was very ill and in a cold room. The man begged for a fire to be lit as he couldn’t fix himself food and was afraid he was going to freeze. Dean agreed to do it although it was risky for him. He tried to minimize the risk by staying away from the man, but he did go into the man’s room. Move the bar to 29 minutes to hear the segment near the end of this recording:

At the beginning of the second part of the interview Dean says that he did catch the flu later on that year, but was fortunate not to have a severe case.

The Center for Applied Linguistics Collection includes oral histories collected by linguists seeking examples of natural speech. Asking people to talk about their memories encouraged people to talk naturally and demonstrate their local accent without being self-conscious about it. One subject that came up for people old enough to remember was the influenza epidemic. A man in the Pettigrew, Arkansas, talked with Donna Christian about life in the Ozarks when he was a young man. At about 5 minutes into the recording below, a discussion of the way people looked after each other when they were sick or helped families if someone died turns into memories of the epidemic of 1918-1919. He tells of people taking ceiling boards out of their own houses to make coffins for the dead. He means it as an example of people helping each other, but it is  chilling to think of the circumstances that would require people to do that. He also talks about what he and his father decided to do in this situation. They noticed that people died because they got up and went out to care for their farm animals, chop wood, and do other work too soon. They decided that they could help with that even though it meant risking their own lives. Move the bar to 5 minutes to hear the segment:

The speaker includes a couple of home remedies as he talks about trying to help people without getting sick. He and his father took asafoetida root and garlic, two culinary plants that have been used as protection against disease since ancient times. He feels this helped to protect them from getting the flu. I suspect that the most effective preventative measure they used was to stay out of people’s houses and assist them instead with work outside while the sick stayed inside.

Although people did not understand much about the disease that caused the 1918-1919 pandemic at the time and citizens without medical training often had a limited understanding of disease prevention, many people used their common sense, sometimes combined with folk remedies, to survive the crisis.  In addition, some local governments used measures such as closing schools and discouraging large gatherings, actions that made a difference where they were implemented. Today we are using some of the same basic knowledge to get through the current pandemic: assume you could carry the disease without knowing it, practice social distancing, help other people while avoiding direct contact with them, support health care workers, wear a cloth mask when going out and about like the men pictured above on the trolley, and, of course, wash your hands.


American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 (2,847). More examples of memories of the epidemic can be found in this collection by searching on “flu” and “influenza.” See, for example,   J. D. Washburn, interviewed by Douglas Carter. Washburn tells about his work in the Army caring for influenza patients on page 4.

Hall, Stephanie, “Sheet Music of the Week: World Mosquito Day Edition,” In the Muse Performing Arts Blog, Library of Congress, August 20, 2013. (Includes discussion of disease spread by mosquitoes and related folklore.)

“John M. Barry on ‘The Great Influenza,'” The National Book Festival Presents, Library of Congress, April 7, 2020 (video). John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” talks with David Rubenstein about the 1918 influenza pandemic, how the world responded and lessons to be learned during the present COVID-19 crisis.

Oral history with 70 year old male, British Columbia, Carter Lindsay, speaker, Derek Reimer, collector. February 2, 1976. Center for Applied Linguistics Collecdistion, Library of Congress.

Taylor, Lisa, “Pandemic: A Woman on Duty,” Folklife Today, March 26, 2020.

Comments (4)

  1. I really enjoy reading the stories of the 1918 flu. I appreciate the compilation of artifacts that I will go through, little by little, while currently going through a similar pandemic. Hoping you are safe and well.

  2. almost remind me of covid-19

  3. So interesting and relevant how sad we are not like these people they were amazing strong and resilient

  4. i find it fascinating that “asafoetida root and garlic” were used, as these are very powerful immune boosters!

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