I don’t know what your family does around the dinner table, but mine has a habit of sharing weird things that have happened at school. Sometimes, especially between my sister and me, these turn into a subtle wars of who-learned-the-most-interesting-or-gross- fact-today contests. Given our areas of learning, mine are usually history-related, and hers science-related, but that isn’t always the case, as this history fact is one that I happened to learn from her.
A couple of semesters ago, my sister had the opportunity to read a book on the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 for extra credit in one of her biology classes. Since we share a room, she’d periodically update me with interesting tidbits as she read through it.
The epidemic was significant not only for the sheer number of people it killed worldwide (about 100 million) but also because, in the words of the The Great Influenza, it “marked the first collision between modern science and epidemic disease.” While it’s a fascinating study from both a scientific perspective and a historical one, for the people living through it, it was terrifying. (The epidemic is notably absent from L.M. Montgomery’s novel of the Canadian homefront experience during The Great War, Rilla of Ingleside. Despite having been such a prominent issue and fear in real life, it’s not once mentioned in the book, perhaps because, not only did Montgomery contract the flu herself, but her best friend died of it. We can only assume its intensely personal effect on her life prompted it too painful to write about.)
The desperation of the people affected by the pandemic cannot be overstated. The illness was so widespread that patient care became an incredible problem. According to John M. Barry:
It was impossible to get a doctor, and perhaps more impossible to get a nurse. Reports came in that nurses were being held by force in the homes of patients too frightened and desperate to allow them to leave. Nurses were literally being kidnapped. (The Great Influenza, pp. 276-277)
It sounds like something from a dystopian novel. The lack of nurses during the time came from a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most obvious was the fact that so many nurses were on the front caring for soldiers. It’s amazing what a crisis or disaster can do to society. Nurses literally being kidnapped to care for desperate, frightened families sounds like something more liable to happen in a movie or book than real life- but then again, real life sometimes is even crazier than what we put into fiction.
(also, another little fact: This strain of flu is often called the “Spanish Flu,” even though research suggests the flu actually originated in an army camp in Kansas. This is because when the outbreak occurred during the War, both sides only wanted to report positive news. Spain, being neutral, was therefore the first country to publicly report on the pandemic.)
And now, since I’ve uplifted your heart with that little ray of optimistic sunshine, have a lovely day and remember to wash your hands often, cough into your elbow, and for heaven’s sake, stay home if you don’t feel well.