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World War I came to an end on November 11, 1918—nine months after the first cases of what was referred to as the “Spanish Flu” were reported in the United States. Against the backdrop of the war, the 1918 influenza pandemic surged at a time when people were already experiencing scarcity in everyday supplies, coping with having loved ones serving overseas, and living in a wartime economy.
A second global crisis had started before the first one ended.
World War I was devastating, leading to around 20 million deaths worldwide. Deaths from the 1918 pandemic were even more staggering: At least 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans, died from the disease. But the legacy of World War I overshadowed the pandemic, making the unprecedented loss of life from the flu almost an afterthought.
“When the flu impact resolved, people engaged in a kind of collective amnesia,” says Monica Schoch-Spana, PhD, a medical anthropologist specializing in public health emergency preparedness at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. “At the same time though, there still was the collective trauma of the war. And so you had processes of post-war rituals and remembrances and monuments.”
READ MORE: The Deadliest Events in US History
Investment in World War I Memorials
For an event to become entrenched in the collective memory, it requires the public to be actively engaged in remembering it, according to Maria Luisa Lima and José Manuel Sobral in Societies Under Threat: A Pluri-Disciplinary Approach. This happens through referencing the event among family members and in everyday conversations, as well as commemorating it in monuments, rituals, archives and narratives.
“The contrast between the investment in memorialization of the war and what happened with the Spanish flu is huge,” say Lima and Sobral. They point out that, unlike wars, pandemics don’t offer the same “monumental benchmarks” that lend themselves to a monument or public commemoration, like a particular battle or the signing of a treaty.
Commemorations to mark World War I emerged quickly in the wake of the war—and in a variety of forms. School textbook narratives were updated, Veterans Day was established, and monuments and memorials were placed at sites across the country.
In the 1920s and 1930s alone, thousands of monuments and memorials—from commemorative plaques, to statues, to architectural monuments—were erected throughout the United States by state and local governments, as well as colleges, businesses, clubs, veterans groups, and houses of worship, according to the United States World War I Centennial Commission.
One of the most recognizable and pervasive World War I memorials is E. M. Viquesney’s “The Spirit of the American Doughboy” sculpture. Mass-produced in three different variations, the statue was placed in parks, town squares, and other federal properties across 39 states. At least 145 of these statues remain in existence today. They all depict a World War I soldier known as a “Doughboy” holding a rifle in his left hand and a grenade in his right hand, with his right fist raised in a sign of victory.
READ MORE: Why Were American Soldiers in WWI Called Doughboys?
1918 Influenza Memorials—Far Fewer and Built Later
While hundreds of World War I monuments and memorials have been lost to time, very few dedicated structures and sculptures commemorating civilian lives lost in the 1918 pandemic were built in the first place. Some of the closest equivalents are World War I memorials that include soldiers who died from influenza.
The “Flu Epidemic Monument” at Camp Funston in the Fort Riley Military Reservation in Kansas features a pyramid of stacked stones honoring a unit of medical care soldiers who died in the flu epidemic. The more common iteration is World War I memorials that also include the names of soldiers who died from influenza alongside those who perished in battle, like the stone obelisk at the Camp Merritt military base in Bergen County, New Jersey.
A small handful of other 1918 pandemic memorials scattered throughout the country were, for the most part, established much later—in the 2000s. Several are located in cemeteries or at the sites of mass graves containing unknown numbers of people who died from the flu, including examples in Butler County, Pennsylvania (erected in 2002); Evergreen Park outside of Chicago (2007), Springdale, Pennsylvania (2013), and Earlington, Kentucky (2019). A few other memorials went up in 2018, marking the centennial of the pandemic, including those in Camp Devens, Massachusetts and Barre, Vermont.
HISTORY This Week podcast: The Deadliest Pandemic in Modern History
WATCH: The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI
World War I Pride vs. Medical Failure
Why such a discrepancy between World War I and pandemic memorials? One factor may be pride: World War I was seen as a show of military strength, while the 1918 pandemic was perceived as a weakness. As much as American medicine and public health had been progressing, the medical field wasn’t able to defeat the deadly influenza strain.
“In an age where medicine was accumulating victories against health problems, this epidemic clearly challenged medical knowledge and questioned medical capacity to deal with the disease,” say Lima and Sobral.
Having very few physical monuments commemorating the 1918 influenza pandemic contributed to its fading from public consciousness. But the 1918 pandemic was finally thrust back into the spotlight—a century later. As the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 1918 flu offered a historical example of just how devastating a large-scale global health crisis can be.
READ MORE: See all pandemic coverage here.
How World War I's Legacy Eclipsed the 1918 Pandemic - HISTORY
Historian Nancy Bristow talked about the 1918 influenza pandemic and how it devastated American communities and soldiers during World War I. She explained how this version of the flu was different than previous seasonal versions of the flu at the time.
In 1918, a strain of influenza spread throughout the globe causing 50 million deaths worldwide. Sometimes referred to as the Spanish Flu, this pandemic was unique in its severity and the segments of the population that were affected. This lesson has students hear from historians, scientists and doctors to explore the factors that led to the spread of the disease. With this information, students will develop a list of lessons that can be learned from the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Before beginning class, have the students brainstorm answers to the following questions. Address any misconceptions that student may have about the flu and early 1900s.
- Describe what you know about the flu and how it usually spreads. What are ways that are used to prevent it?
- Describe what was occurring around the world in 1918.
Have the students either define each of the following terms in their own words or provide them with a brief overview of these terms. This vocabulary will be used through the video clips included in this lesson.
After students have an understanding of the vocabulary terms mentioned above, have them view the following video clip that provides an overview of the 1918 Spanish Flu. Student should answer the questions provided to focus their viewing.
What is the common belief about the origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic?
How did World War I help intensify the spread of the Spanish Flu?
How did the Spanish Flu affect certain age groups differently than previous flus? Why was this significant to society?
Describe the symptoms of the Spanish Flu.
Provide students with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Handout. Students should watch the video clips provided below to complete the graphic organizer. Students will take notes on the factors that contributed to the spread of the flu and actions taken to stop the spread of the flu.
HANDOUT: 1918 Influenza Pandemic (Google Doc)
VIDEO CLIP 3: The Spanish Flu and World War I (1:49)
APPLICATION AND CONCLUSION:
After students have completed their graphic organizer, have them develop a list of 3-5 lessons learned or recommendations that can be taken from the 1918 pandemic. For each, they should explain how these lessons or recommendations could prevent the spread of similar pandemics in the future.
Oral Histories: Using the Department of Health and Human Service documentary, We Heard the Bells, The Influenza of 1918, choose one of the people from the film who witnessed the 1918 pandemic. Provide a summary of their experiences and explain how their story relates to some of the factors that contributed to the spread of the flu.
1918 Influenza Pandemic Memorial- As Professor Bristow mentioned in the video clip, there is not a national memorial to honor the victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Using the information provided in the clips and outside research, design a memorial that commemorates the pandemic. In addition to creating a design for the memorial, provide an explanation of where you would locate the memorial and how this memorial symbolizes the 1918 pandemic.
Should the federal government take a more active role in preventing epidemics and pandemics?
How did World War I contribute to the spread of the Spanish Flu?
How did the Spanish Flu impact World War I?
In what ways did the social and racial divisions impact the severity of the 1918 influenza?
Flu Epidemic of 1918
A deadly influenza outbreak began in 1918 and spread around the world, killing more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history. In Arkansas, the flu killed about 7,000 people, several times more than the state lost during World War I. This flu’s history remains significant today as world health officials seek to prevent an outbreak of a similar influenza epidemic mutated from swine or “bird flu” from poultry.
In the fourteenth century, Italian doctors noted a mysterious illness that often turned into an epidemic. They called it the influentia in medieval Latin, believing it was caused by an adverse influence of the stars or alignment of the planets. By the eighteenth century, it was called influenza di freddo, or “influence of the cold,” as Italian doctors thought it might be caused by a chill. French doctors called it la grippe (from the word “seize” or “grasp,” as the illness tenaciously gripped its victims). The disease was very quick, very contagious, and had the ability to mutate into different strains, so treatment for one strain might not work for another. Modern researchers have also discovered the flu’s ability to mutate from animals to humans.
Scientists theorize that the 1918 strain may have begun in rural Haskell County, Kansas, where people lived close to their pigs and poultry. With the entry of the United States into World War I on April 6, 1917, men were drafted and sent to large training camps before being transported to Europe. In February 1918, after visiting their families in Haskell (where there were reports of people dying from severe flu) several soldiers on leave reported back to duty at Camp Funston, part of the Fort Riley complex in eastern Kansas.
In early March 1918, a soldier at Camp Funston went on sick call complaining of headache, sore throat, muscle aches, chills, and fever. By noon, more than a hundred men joined him. Within a month, 1,000 were sick, and almost fifty soldiers were dead. They were strong, healthy young men whose lungs filled with fluid so quickly they drowned, sometimes within twelve hours of feeling sick. Because the lack of oxygen in the blood seemed to turn the victims dark blue, purple, or black, comparisons were drawn to the “Black Death” (most likely bubonic plague) of the Middle Ages. The 1918 flu would go on to kill more people in one year than the Black Death did in a century.
Conditions in 1918 were perfect for spreading the disease as civilian war workers moved around the country, draftees were sent to overcrowded training camps, and soldiers were shipped off to war in the cramped, stuffy holds of troop ships, which became known as “floating caskets.” Influenza spread to American cities and rural areas alike, as well as to the battlefields of France before spreading throughout Europe. It killed eight million Spaniards with terrible speed. Because the press in Spain, a neutral country, was not censored into ignoring the epidemic as combatant countries did (for fear of lowering morale), it became known as the Spanish Flu.
In Arkansas, the flu ultimately killed more than 7,000 people. It may also have had more far-reaching consequences: the port city of Brest in France, where almost half of all U.S. soldiers disembarked, had survived an epidemic of a milder flu strain earlier in 1918, but as John M. Barry states, “the first outbreak with high mortality occurred in July, in a replacement detachment of American troops from Camp Pike, Arkansas.”
Camp Pike (renamed Camp Robinson in 1937) in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) was established in 1917 for army basic training. While about eighty percent of Arkansans lived on farms in 1918, Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and the nearby Little Rock (Pulaski County) area each had more than 30,000 residents. With 52,000 men at Camp Pike, its infirmary began admitting up to a thousand men a day. The camp was sealed and quarantined, and the commandant ordered that the names of the dead not be released to the press. Still, more than 500 civilian cases soon appeared in the Little Rock area. J. C. Geiger, U.S. Public Health Service officer for Arkansas, downplayed the threat to the state with reassuring statements (possibly to avert a panic), even after he caught the flu and his wife died of it. Arkansas officials did little to prepare for the epidemic, partly based on Geiger’s reassurances and the lack of press coverage in wartime.
The disease spread to rural areas of Arkansas, where many deaths likely went unreported. It cannot be determined how many rural residents died because of several factors: lack of medical care in isolated areas, no telephones or other means of communication, lack of literacy skills to record the deaths, and no cemetery records, since many were buried in unmarked graves in family burial grounds. Sometimes entire families, too weak to draw water or cook their own food, died of the disease, thirst, or starvation. Country people, who were known for helping each other during illnesses, generally could not or would not help their neighbors in 1918 either from being too sick themselves or out of fear.
Race was also a factor in the high death rate. In response to pleas from Arkansas and elsewhere, one national medical publication stated, “No colored physicians available.” It was noted nationwide that there seemed to be a higher mortality rate among African Americans than whites, possibly because of a lack of medical care. The actual numbers probably went unrecorded in Arkansas as well as overseas, where one report stated that “a considerable number of American negroes…have contracted Spanish influenza and died in French hospitals.” It is not known how many a “considerable number” of the nameless dead might be. Nor is it known how many black sharecroppers on Arkansas plantations went untreated or died unrecorded. People with the best chance of survival were those who took to bed soon after the first symptoms, stayed in bed for several weeks, and had the best care. Across the nation, the poor died in larger numbers than the rich, and Arkansas was probably no exception.
In Arkansas, many voters were too sick or afraid to go out on the rainy election day of 1918. The proposed state constitution, which contained provisions for women’s suffrage and prohibition of alcohol, was defeated in part because of low voter turnout, though informal surveys before election day are inconclusive as to whether the constitution might have passed otherwise.
When the state confirmed 1,800 cases of influenza in October 1918, the Arkansas Board of Health put the state under quarantine, despite Geiger’s continued reassurances (“Situation still well in hand”) and helpful hints (“Cover up each cough and sneeze if you don’t you’ll spread disease”). Pulaski County lifted the quarantine on November 4, 1918, with county boards of health responsible for lifting restrictions in rural areas, though public schools remained closed statewide, and Arkansas children under eighteen were confined to their homes for another month.
After the war ended on November 11, 1918, there was more press attention to the epidemic. Arkansas remained in the grips of influenza through much of 1919, though the death rate began to drop, except in rural areas, where more new cases were reported in south Arkansas beginning in late November 1918.
By the time it ended in 1919, the flu claimed at least 675,000 Americans. About 7,000 Arkansas deaths were recorded, out of the state’s population of roughly 1,700,000, though the exact number of deaths, especially among blacks and in rural areas, may never be known. It is believed that the number of deaths worldwide could be as high as fifty to a hundred million, with an unusually high incidence of death in healthy young adults.
The epidemic disappeared almost as suddenly as it struck. Milder types of influenza have followed, such as “swine flu” and the Asian and Hong Kong varieties, challenging medical science to treat each new form. Today, science confronts the avian flu, since there is evidence that the 1918 began in poultry and/or pigs. In Arkansas as elsewhere, with better communication and lack of media censorship for “patriotic” reasons, as there was during World War I, life-saving information might be disseminated more effectively.
For additional information:
“1918.” Arkansas Times 12 (June 1986): 73.
Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Viking, 2004.
Getz, David. Purple Death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000.
DeBlack, Thomas A. “Epidemic!: The Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and Its Legacy in Arkansas.” In The War at Home: Perspectives on the Arkansas Experience during World War I. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020.
Hendricks, Nancy. “PLAGUE!: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Arkansas.” In To Can the Kaiser: Arkansas and the Great War, edited by Michael D. Polston and Guy Lancaster. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2015.
Influenza Encyclopedia. https://www.influenzaarchive.org/ (accessed July 20, 2020).
Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It. New York: Touchstone, 2001.
Nutt, Tim. : A Different Pandemic.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 21, 2020, pp. 1D, 6D.
Prewitt, Taylor. “When the Flu Hit Fort Smith.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 43 (September 2019): 14–22.
Scott, Kim Allen. “Plague on the Homefront: Arkansas and the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 47 (Winter 1988): 311–344.
Taggart, Sam. “The Deadliest Month: The Spanish Flu of 1918 in Rural Arkansas.” The Saline 33 (Spring 2018): 18–27.
Last of the Great Plagues
The 1918 flu pandemic struck in three waves across the globe, starting in the spring of that year, and is tied to a strain of H1N1 influenza ancestral to ones still virulent today.
The outbreak killed even the young and healthy, turning their strong immune systems against them in a way that's unusual for flu. Adding to the catastrophic loss of lives during World War I, the epidemic may have played a role in ending the war.
"The 1918 flu was the last of the great plagues that struck humanity, and it followed in the tracks of a global conflict," says Humphries.
Even as the pandemic's origins have remained a mystery, the Chinese laborers have previously been suggested as a source of the disease.
Historian Christopher Langford has shown that China suffered a lower mortality rate from the Spanish flu than other nations did, suggesting some immunity was at large in the population because of earlier exposure to the virus.
In the new report, Humphries finds archival evidence that a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917 was identified a year later by Chinese health officials as identical to the Spanish flu.
He also found medical records indicating that more than 3,000 of the 25,000 Chinese Labor Corps workers who were transported across Canada en route to Europe starting in 1917 ended up in medical quarantine, many with flu-like symptoms.
From the ‘Spanish Flu’ to COVID-19: lessons from the 1918 pandemic and First World War
The 1918 influenza pandemic took place while the First World War was still raging. There were three successive waves: the first in the spring of 1918, the second – and most lethal, responsible for 90% of deaths – in the autumn of 1918, and a final upsurge from the winter of 1918 to the spring of 1919. By the end of the pandemic, more than half of the world’s population had been infected. Estimations on mortality, challenging to confirm for a lack of data, have continuously been revised upwards. Nowadays, historians and epidemiologists use a broad spectrum ranging from 2.5 to 5% of the world’s population, which translates to between 50 and 100 million deaths. The pandemic was, therefore, five to ten times deadlier than the First World War.
History never repeats itself. Every single historical moment is distinct from those past. Nevertheless, parallels can be drawn between different historical events even though history does not teach us what to do, it can inspire us to act. Examining the 1918 influenza pandemic is an opportunity to consider the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis from a different perspective.
Katherine Hannan: The Intrepid Nurse Who Battled the Deadliest Flu Pandemic in History
For Johnson & Johnson employees, Our Credo is more than just a company mission statement—it’s a way of life. And even before the guiding document was crafted in 1943, employees personified its commitment to put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first.
For the latest installment in our Historic J&J Heroes series spotlighting the impressive feats of past employees, we're featuring Katherine Hannan, an employee who took Johnson & Johnson’s commitment to well-being to heart and put her nursing skills to use on the front lines during World War I.
Image courtesy of Johnson & Johnson Archives
Her role at Johnson & Johnson …
Hannan, who was a nurse by training, worked in the early 1900s in Johnson & Johnson’s in-house advertising department, which was responsible for producing ads for such popular company products as sterile surgical dressings, Johnson's® Shaving Cream Soap and Red Cross® Kidney Plasters.
Why we think she’s worthy of being called a hero …
“When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Red Cross put out a call for nurses and Katherine volunteered,” says Margaret Gurowitz Margaret Gurowitz, Chief Historian, Johnson & Johnson , Chief Historian at Johnson & Johnson. “She was a pioneer at Johnson & Johnson in that respect.”
In fact, Hannan is the only known female Johnson & Johnson employee to have volunteered for military service during that time. “Roles for women in the military were far more limited 100 years ago,” Gurowitz says, adding that nursing was one of the few positions women could fill.
As a field nurse for the U.S. Army, Hannan was first sent to General Hospital #6 at Fort McPherson in Georgia, where she was quickly promoted to head nurse and superintendent, overseeing 100 nurses.
Meanwhile, the deadly Spanish influenza virus was spreading. The first recorded outbreak in the United States occurred at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 11, 1918. A few months later, Hannan was sent to Vladivostok, Siberia, to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces as chief nurse of the Evacuation Hospital, where she and fellow nurses treated wounded soldiers and those suffering from the flu.
This was no small feat: The pandemic would ultimately claim the lives of about 50 million people worldwide.
A postcard Hannan sent to her colleagues at Johnson & Johnson while stationed in Siberia
Image courtesy of Johnson & Johnson Archives
A fun fact about her …
Hannan was a second-generation Johnson & Johnson employee. According to Gurowitz, her father worked for the company as a member of the engineering staff and would have been in charge of the electrical generating equipment in the Old Mill, a Johnson & Johnson manufacturing facility. The company made medicated plasters there, among other products, and the site also contained the company’s first aseptic lab for sterile surgical products.
How her legacy lives on today …
Hannan was an early example of the company's long-standing commitment to helping communities around the world, paving the way for such modern company programs as the Extended Volunteer Leave Policy, which allows eligible employees to take up to two weeks away—including one paid—from their jobs to volunteer at a nonprofit of their choice.
She was also an embodiment of the company's commitment to supporting nurses, which is manifested today in the Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing—an initiative that aids students pursuing careers in nursing and provides resources for those already in the profession.
“Hannan really exemplified the characteristics of giving back, stepping up and helping when help was needed—leadership qualities that are important at Johnson & Johnson to this day," Gurowitz says.
Social and Economic Impacts of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic
India lost 16.7 million people. Five hundred and fifty thousand died in the US. Spain’s death rate was low, but the disease was called “Spanish flu” because the press there was first to report it.
A n estimated 40 million people, or 2.1 percent of the global population, died in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918–20. If a similar pandemic occurred today, it would result in 150 million deaths worldwide. In The Coronavirus and the Great Influenza Pandemic: Lessons from the “Spanish Flu” for the Coronavirus’s Potential Effects on Mortality and Economic Activity (NBER Working Paper 26866 ), Robert J. Barro , José F. Ursúa , and Joanna Weng study the cross-country differences in the death rate associated with the virus outbreak, and the associated impacts on economic activity.
The flu spread in three waves: the first in the spring of 1918, the second and most deadly from September 1918 to January 1919, and the third from February 1919 through the end of the year. The first two waves were intensified by the final years of World War I the authors work to distinguish the effect of the flu on the death rate from the effect of the war. The flu was particularly deadly for young adults without pre-existing conditions, which increased its economic impact relative to a disease that mostly affects the very young and the very old.
The researchers analyze mortality data from more than 40 countries, accounting for 92 percent of the world’s population in 1918 and an even larger share of its GDP. The mortality rate varied from 0.3 percent in Australia, which imposed a quarantine in 1918, to 5.8 percent in Kenya and 5.2 percent in India, which lost 16.7 million people over the three years of the pandemic. The flu killed 550,000 in the United States, or 0.5 percent of the population. In Spain, 300,000 died for a death rate of 1.4 percent, around average. There is no consensus as to where the flu originated it became associated with Spain because the press there was first to report it.
There is little reliable data on how many people were infected by the virus. The most common estimate, one third of the population, is based on a 1919 study of 11 US cities it may not be representative of the US population, let alone the global population.
The researchers estimate that in the typical country, the pandemic reduced real per capita GDP by 6 percent and private consumption by 8 percent, declines comparable to those seen in the Great Recession of 2008–2009. In the United States, the flu’s toll was much lower: a 1.5 percent decline in GDP and a 2.1 percent drop in consumption.
The decline in economic activity combined with elevated inflation resulted in large declines in the real returns on stocks and short-term government bonds. For example, countries experiencing the average death rate of 2 percent saw real stock returns drop by 26 percentage points. The estimated drop in the United States was much smaller, 7 percentage points.
The researchers note that “the probability that COVID-19 reaches anything close to the Great Influenza Pandemic seems remote, given advances in public health care and measures that are being taken to mitigate propagation.” They note, however, that some of the mitigation efforts that are currently underway, particularly those affecting commerce and travel, are likely to amplify the virus’s impact on economic activity.
In a related study, Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions and Mortality in US Cities during the Great Influenza Pandemic, 1918–19 (NBER Working Paper 27049 ), Robert Barro analyzes data on the mitigation policies pursued by US cities as they confronted the flu epidemic. There were substantial cross-sectional differences in the policies that were adopted. Relative to the average number of flu deaths per week over the course of the epidemic, the number of flu deaths at the peak was lower in cities that pursued more aggressive policies, such as school closing and prohibition of public gatherings. However, the estimated effect of these policies on the total number of deaths was modest and statistically indistinguishable from zero. One potential explanation of this finding is that the interventions had a mean duration of only around one month.
Hemingway and the 1918 Flu Pandemic: Transcript
JAMIE RICHARDSON: The spread and severity of the coronavirus may be unlike anything seen in our lifetimes, but it was just over 100 years ago that another deadly flu pandemic swept over the globe. The 1918 flu pandemic infected half a billion people worldwide, or nearly a third of the world's population, and killed an estimated 50 million people around the globe. And while JFK was only a year old at the time of the pandemic, there's another person whose papers are housed at the JFK Library who is also alive to witness and record his thoughts throughout the pandemic, and that's Ernest Hemingway. We'll hear how the flu affected his family and loved ones while he was a young man overseas in World War I. That’s up next on this episode of JFK35.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Hello, I'm Jamie Richardson. Welcome to this latest episode of JFK35. As someone who has a love of history, I often find myself looking to the past to see what guidance or lessons I can learn to apply to what's happening in the world today. As we face the current coronavirus pandemic, my co-host, Matt Porter, and I were excited to have a chance to talk to Hemingway scholar Susan Beegel on Ernest Hemingway's experience during the 1918 flu pandemic.
And some of you may be wondering, why is a podcast focused on the life and legacy of JFK talking about Ernest Hemingway? Well, here is a pretty brief overview. While presidentKennedy and Ernest Hemingway never met, they were mutual admirers of each other. After Hemingway died, his widow, Mary Hemingway, needed help getting her husband’s belongings from their house in Cuba, help which came from the Kennedy administration.
Now, jumping ahead a few years, as Mrs. Kennedy was making plans for her late husband's archives, Mary Hemingway was also looking for a place to house her husband's papers.She wrote to the former first lady offering to donate Hemingway's papers and other material to what would then become The John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. So this is a very, very quick version of how Hemingway's papers came to be at the JFK Library. If you want to learn more, you can listen to an episode we did on the collection in our first season. But now, let's go to Matt and my conversation with Dr. Susan Beegel on Ernest Hemingway and the 1918 flu pandemic.
MATT PORTER: And joining us also is Dr. Susan F Beegel, who holds a PhD from Yale University. Recently retired, she served more than two decades as editor of The Hemingway Review, an academic journal on the life and work of Ernest Hemingway. Her 2014 essay, "Love in the Time of Influenza, Ernest Hemingway and the 1918 Pandemic," has recently attracted some fresh attention. Susan, who comes from a multigenerational medical family, has always been interested in this chapter of history, as three of her grandparents, one nurse, and two doctors, worked on the frontlines of the 1918 pandemic. Susan, thank you for joining us here.
SUSAN BEEGEL: Thank you, I'm happy to be here.
MATT PORTER: Let's start, before we get into the Hemingway portion of this, Susan, can you tell us a little more about the 1918 pandemic as it was, because a lot of people have sort of kind of forgotten about what was the major pandemic in the early part of the 20th century.
SUSAN BEEGEL: Oh, sure, I'd be happy to fill you in. This was a major event in history that surprisingly, we don't really learn about in school too much. I think I'd start by saying that there's some big numbers here, and I'd like everybody to think about the fact that the numbers represent sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and mothers and fathers.
So in 1918, the world was in the midst of a World War, and a virulent influenza emerged, a new kind that no one had ever seen before, and it spread all around the world, and of course, it was massively fueled by the war, because there were patriotic rallies, there were parades, there were streams of refugees, and most of all, mass movement of troops all over the globe. Sometimes, this is called the Spanish flu, because Spanish newspapers reported it. They were a neutral country. But those countries who are in the war didn't report it at all.Sometimes, even their own citizens didn't know this was happening, because you don't want the enemy to know that your citizens are dropping like flies and your troops are infected.
The flu was deadlier than any flu that's been known before sense, and sometimes, it killed by turning into a violent pneumonia that could kill people within 24 hours. My grandmother talked about going to work one day and working with a doctor, and coming in the very next day, and the doctor was dead. Before the pandemic burned itself out, it killed approximately 50 million people worldwide, about 2/3 of them in a 12-week period from mid-September to early December 1918, although it would go on and have consecutive waves after that.
It killed more people than World War I itself, which had 9.2 million combat deaths for contrast. World War II had 15.9 million dead. It claimed more lives than the Black Death of theMiddle Ages in 100 years, and more people in 24 weeks than AIDS in its first 24 years. And most of these people were young people, or the majority of them, between the ages of 20and 30 years old, and historians who study this say maybe killed between 8% to 10% of the world's total population of people in this age group.
In the US, about 28% of the population was infected, and so many people died that the American life expectancy dropped from 51 in 1917 to 39 in 1918. And we now think that that the flu actually arose in March 1918 at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, where there were tens of thousands of Army recruits jammed into crowded barracks. Ernest Hemingway actually trained there in the National Guard, but he got out before the flu arose.
And so I give you that, but I want to say that this thing really, really takes off, remember those 12 weeks between September and December, the last few months of the war, when we send 1.5 million troops to Europe, the United States. 1.5 million people in troop ships where between 40 to 80% of the people onboard could be infected. So it makes the DiamondPrincess look like a piker.
MATT PORTER: Right before we get into Ernest Hemingway's experience with this, I'd love to tap in, because you've done all this research of the 1918 pandemic, how has researching that and now living through what we're going through right now with COVID-19 in 2020, how does it feel? Do you see things happening that you researched from 1918?What do you see?
SUSAN BEEGEL: That's a great question. I would say that initially, the fact that I have done research on this pandemic was terrifying, looking around me at my home state of Maine and what could go wrong here. In 1918, for instance, our shipyard, which today, has 8,000 workers who live in 16 different counties of Maine moving in and out through a tiny community with a hospital that only has 92 staffed beds, that scares the heck out of me. And it still scares me, because I wonder if we are taking this seriously enough, and how it will play out over the weeks to come.
On the other hand, I realize that things are very, very different. Flu was not a reportable disease in 1918. There was no such thing as the CDC. There was no television, no radio, it wasn't being reported in the newspapers.
There was no government control whatsoever. Only cities and towns had the authority to order a stay at home or to shut things down. The state was completely helpless to do anything. And because of the war, people wanted everything to stay open.
So yeah, it's simultaneously terrifying, and then I realize, well, it really isn't the same thing, so we don't want to scare people entirely to death. And of course, people didn't have the medical technology then. They didn't have respirators, they couldn't identify genes to do testing, they couldn't identify antibodies. There was no hope of a vaccination.
Flu vaccinations didn't come along until, I think, 1936. It was Jonas Salk who went on to do the polio vaccine. So there is a big difference, but again, it was terrifying. And it's also-- I got to tell you, I'd much rather do historical research than live through something.
SUSAN BEEGEL: It's a shocking experience.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: So to bring this back to Hemingway, he was born in 1899, correct? So he's a young man. And where was he at this point? You mentioned he was in Kansas briefly. What else was he doing at that time?
SUSAN BEEGEL: OK, so, Hemingway was in high school. He was 17 years old when the United States entered World War I, and like so many people today, his life was completely disarranged. He'd been planning to go on to the University of Illinois, but he knew he was going to be drafted as soon as he turned 18 or called up into the Army as soon as he turned18 in July, and so he didn't make plans to go to college.
And in July, it turned out that he wasn't really eligible for the Army because he had bad eyesight, so he went off to get an interim job working as a cub reporter on The Kansas CityStar, and he was required to train in the National Guard, but he really, really wanted to go to the war. This is Hemingway. And he was terrified it was going to end without him, because he wanted to see it.
And so what he did eventually was sign up with the American Red Cross to be an ambulance driver. And probably a good thing for American literature, they sent him to Italy. TheUnited States had recently declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so we were going to be Italy's ally, and they sent him in, really, right before the big wave of American troops who were infected hit France. So he's moving across Europe in front of them.
He gets to Italy, and the United States decided that they were going to devote all of their military effort in France and not send troops to Italy after all. This is going to be important to know this in a minute. So he begins work as an ambulance driver in Italy, and he hasn't worked more than a week or two before he's badly wounded in July at a place called Fossalta diPiave delivering candy and cigarettes to Italian soldiers in the trenches, and the trench is hit by a mortar shell, and he is sprayed with shrapnel pretty much from the hips down.
They removed 228 pieces of metal from his legs, and he got up, he tried to get out of the trench. Some say he carried a wounded soldier with him, when he did that, he was hit by machine gun fire. And so he got-- he was shot in the foot, and more importantly, shot in a knee and the bullet lodged under his kneecap. So he was sent in July to a hospital in Milan,Italy, and it was an American Red Cross hospital that had been set up for all of these American troops who weren't arriving.
So he's in a big, mostly empty hospital, which is a very good thing. And it's kind of like a mandatory stay at home. And there, he undergoes a long treatment to get-- he has multiple surgeries on his legs.
And while this is going on, he falls desperately in love with his nurse, Agnes Von Kurowsky who's 26 years old. He's 19. This is his first great love. And of course, this is going to be the model for the love affair in A Farewell to Arms between Frederick Henry and Catherine Barkley.
So when the flu breaks out in October 1918, that's when it really, really hits Italy, by this point, he's kind of up and about and he's walking with the help of crutches, and then with a cane, and going to do physical therapy to try to get the strength in his leg back, because it's so-- the muscles are so atrophied, and the leg has got lots of healing to do before it can work again. So that's where he is. He's in that hospital, in love with his nurse when the flu comes to Italy.
What was really interesting to me was the letters that he was getting back from his family, who were also in the midst of this pandemic in Oak Park in Chicago. So to try to set it up to where he is, he's in the hospital in October, and that is really when the flu takes off in Italy. It's sort of present.
And then on October 6, and this is how the war thing works with this disease, somebody circulates a rumor that Kaiser Wilhelm has proposed an armistice to President Wilson, and when that happens, hundreds of thousands of Italians pour into the streets to celebrate the end of the war, and within 48 hours, the epidemic just explodes. In the end, what we're going to see, and again, most of this happens in the following 12 weeks, although it continues into 1919, 500,000 to 600,000 Italians are going to die, and 5 to 6 million of them are going to be sickened.
So Hemingway's in Milan, and in Milan, streets are being sprayed with disinfectant, public assemblies are banned, numbers of people who are allowed on transportation are reduced, cafes and shops and public buildings also limited. So this is going on all around him. So now, he's getting letters from home, and his family lives in the suburb of Oak Park, and his father is a doctor there. He's in family practice. And the disease explodes there as well.
There's a huge Naval training station in Chicago, the Great Lakes Station, and it's the largest facility of its kind in the world, which you might not think, but the Great Lakes are a very safe place for ships and for training and for hospitals, and that really takes off. The Great Lakes has, just to give you prospective, 2,600 bed hospital-- I mean, 1,800 bed hospital,2,600 patients, 900 sailors die at Great Lakes in Chicago, and the troops there send it out into the Chicago community. In fact, lots of families welcomed sailors from the Great Lakes into their homes on the weekends, to be nice to the troops and all that, including the Hemingways. So they would have people from Great Lakes staying with them on the weekends.
And so the thing takes off in Chicago, which winds up with 14,000 dead. OK, so that's what he's hearing from home, from dad, who is flat working as a family practitioner. His daughter wrote that at one time, Dr. Hemingway was 48 hours without sleep on his feet. And these doctors are doing this without a great deal of help, because half of their normal number of physicians are away at the war.
Then there's his mother, who is a musician, and a choir director, and a composer, and a music teacher. Her life is upended. And there are four sisters and a little brother. So each of those people is writing to Hemingway.
And I was most interested in the siblings, because we know a lot about the parents, but I don't think anybody looked at the sibling letters. So Hemingway's sister, Marceline, she's 20years old. She's a year older than he is. She loses at least three of her best friends who are all at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and she is studying social work at theCongregational Training School in Chicago, and so she's actually a front line worker.
She works in the outpatient clinic at Cook County Hospital in Chicago where they had 2,000 flu patients admitted in one week, and 31% of those people died. And then the students also go out with home health nurses, because there's a nursing shortage as well, and they go into the slums of Chicago in the tenements, and Marceline's involved in bathing and feeding the children who have parents that they're too sick to care for their kids, cleaning their apartments. Several of her classmates are sick, and one of them died. That's Marceline.
His sister Ursula is just 16 years old. And I don't know-- I think I'd just like you to hear her voice in this letter to her brother. This is a 16-year-old girl. She's writing about her boyfriend.
”Ernie, you remember Bobby Hearst, don't you? I'd gone with him quite a bit this year and was going to the football game Saturday with him, and he died.” And she underlines he died.There's an exclamation point.
"Influenza turning to double pneumonia. It's been terrible. I know this is sort of sad to write in a letter, but Bobby thought such a lot of you, and had just told me the other day to write you and send you his congrats on being up, so I wanted to tell you about him. He was such a peach and a good friend.”
So that's one sister is risking her life, another sister's lost her boyfriend. Now, we get to his little sister Madeline. Her nickname was Sunny, she's 14, and one of his favorite sister.
”Dad just called me in his office and looked at my throat and said I had the flu. Oh, bird. My head is beginning to ache, so I think I better go to bed. So good night, but tell all the Austrians and Germans you can that I would like to get a good chance at them and see what they would look like when I got through.” So there Sunny, his little sister who's coming down with it and being very, very spunky.
And finally, we have a letter, you have a letter, from his young sister Carol, who is only seven years old. And I thought this might amuse parents who are trying desperately to homeschool their children online. They didn't even make a stab at homeschooling in 1918.
And she writes, “Dear Ernie, when are you coming home? We are in quarantine. We cannot go out of our yards. We do not have school or church. That is fun.
”We do not have to do anything but play. Will you bring me a ring? I hope that you will be better soon. I am, and I cut out paper dolls. It is fun too. It is raining or I would be playing.”
I mean, to me, the fascinating thing about this is you go away to the war, you do your bit, you're badly wounded, you're recovering in the hospital. You're supposed to be a hero, and your family's supposed to admire you. And at first, those are his letters, I'm the wounded warrior, and now, you find that your father is risking his life, your older sister is risking her life, your 16-year-old sister lost her first love, your 14-year-old sister is sick, and then you have little Carol, who has not one clue what's happening and is enjoying not having to go to school. And it kind of changes your perspective on war, I think, a little bit.
MATT PORTER: It's really amazing. You think about, especially the young girl's letter, talking about quarantine, you could imagine maybe a child today writing an email or saying something on one of the instant message chats very similar to someone, so that's really cool, in a sad way. So that's the-- before we get to-- and I think Jamie will ask you about Italy in a second, but reading these letters, you had mentioned that the pandemic wasn't well reported in the countries that were fighting the war. By reading these letters, did it give you amore honest look at sort of what was happening than maybe what the daily press coverage or the government coverage was at the same time when you were reading?
SUSAN BEEGEL: Well, I think it really does. Once they got to the point where they had to close things down-- which Chicago was so bad that the city did decide to do that, and it’s his mom who writes to them about that, because she's the person who has children in school, and the schools are closed, and she's the church choir director, and the church is closed, and she's a bit of a socialite, and clubs are closed, cafes are closed, theaters, everything that she enjoys is is gone, so you read those kinds of things. But to me-- and it's the problem, I think, that we all have right now when we hear these statistics, because we listen to statistics every day, how many people are sick, how many people are dying, but when you read-- I don't know, Ursula's letter, I think, was most moving to me. When you read a letter that a 16-year-old girl wrote about her boyfriend, it sort of changes things, or you see that child’s perspective.
And honestly, that's why your collections are so important, because you have these letters, you have the diaries so that we can see what people were thinking, hear their own voices.And then it's what Hemingway's going to do. He makes great literature out of them, just takes it to the next level where you can not only hear it, but you can almost experience it.That's why I really want to talk about something that happened when he was in the hospital which made a deep impression on him.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: So you mentioned earlier that in Italy, it was pretty-- his hospital was pretty empty, and then there was that announcement about peace possibly happening, and then the pandemic came there. So what's happening with Hemingway? What's happening in his hospital with Agnes, who he's in love with? How does that the pandemic or epidemic affect them?
SUSAN BEEGEL: OK, well, the first thing that happens, and it's a very important thing, because Hemingway would write about it later, and because the materials you have are so amazing, is that on October 4, and this is two days before the epidemic really explodes in Italy, the Red Cross hospital gets its first cases coming in, and these would be American RedCross people who are in Italy. So on the night of October 4, an American Red Cross lieutenant, who we know as Mr. Coulter, is in the hospital, and he dies.
So the first thing we have, again, you have, but we all have it because it's in the. National Archives, is Agnes Von Kurowsky's diary. And we can hear in her own words what it felt like to lose this young man to influenza, but also, Hemingway was present at this Lieutenant Coulter's death. Again, he was up and about. He was having an affair with Agnes and actually wearing her ring. He believed he was engaged to her.
And because he was a Red Cross ambulance driver, the nurses were perfectly happy to have him come around with them on their night rounds and help with lifting and turning patients and things like that that nurses are always happy to have help with, so he was present for this death. So first, I just want to read you a little bit in Agnes's voice from her diary, and I want you to bear in mind, OK, she's 26 years old. She's an extremely experienced nurse.
She trained at Bellevue hospital in New York City, and there really isn't anything she hasn't seen in terms of traumatic injury, disease, drug addiction, violence, poverty, every kind of illness, lots and lots of deaths she has seen, but this is what she writes in her diary. Mr. Coulter was so much worse last night and tonight that [? Kavy ?] came on with me tonight. [? Kavy's ?] another nurse, Loretta [? Kavanaugh. ?]
We were so in hopes that we could pull him through. Dr. Jardine came at 10:45 and said these cases were liable to go very quickly, and the lieutenant died at 11:30 almost in my arms.We worked over him like fiends and did everything we could think of, but it was no use. I cried for the first time over losing a patient, but it seemed so dreadful to die off in a strange land with none of his people near, and he was so sweet.
And the following day, she added, I was just about done up this morning after that night of sorrow. [? Kavy ?] stayed with me until 4:00. We laid him out and I shaved him, and I never saw anyone look so lovely and smiling. Tonight, I tried my best to go out and forget it, so I persuaded [? Kavy ?] and the kid-- that's her nickname for Hemingway-- to go for a drive.
So that's Agnes's voice. And it's extremely moving to me to hear that this pandemic influenza death of this young, young man just cracked this hardened nurse. It's the first time she’s ever cried over a patient, and it's her first Spanish influenza case, as they called it then, or pandemic flu case.
So what does Hemingway do? Hemingway witnesses this death, and it horrified him. And he wrote about it very graphically in A Natural History of the Dead, and so graphically I don't really say it out loud on a podcast, but the struggle of-- he notes that the patient with this flu literally drowns in mucus choking, and he was just terrified by this young man’s struggle before he died.
So having seen this, he goes back to his room, and some time, we don't know when, but we know he was still in the hospital, he pulls out a piece of stationery, says Red Cross on it, hospital stationery, and he starts to write a short story about this from his own point of view. He never finished working it up, but you folks have the manuscript. It's a little manuscript.It doesn't even have a title. It's called at 1 o'clock in the morning.
So you heard Agnes' voice this is the voice of the narrator in Hemingway's story, and the narrator is someone a lot like Hemingway, as usual. His stuff is very autobiographical. He's a wounded soldier who's in the hospital recovering from his wounds, not a Red Cross driver, but a soldier, and in love with a nurse, and he's watched this death.
And he writes, it was the first man I had seen die of the influenza, and it frightened me. The two nurses cleaned him up, and I went back to my room and washed my hands and face and gargled and got back into bed. I had offered to help them clean up, but they did not want that.
When I was alone in the room, I found I was very frightened by the way Connor had died-- that's his fictional name for Coulter-- and I did not go back to sleep. I was frightened into a panic. After awhile, the nurse I was in love with opened the door and came into the room and over to the bed.
And it's at this point in the story that something happens. The nurse wants to be comforted. As you might imagine, Agnes wanted to be comforted after the experience that she has had, and the young wounded soldier finds that he is too afraid to kiss her.
I think we can all understand that at this point, but the fact that he's too afraid to kiss her comes between them, and she needs to go and gargle. They believed that helped then. They gargled with disinfectants. Not Lysol or bleach, but they gargled with disinfectants during the 1918 before she comes back, and then he screws up his courage and does kiss her, but it’s too late. She knows he's a coward and knows that that he was afraid to kiss her.
And again, it's this remarkable role reversal, this flip, where suddenly, the wounded war hero being tenderly cared for by the nurse is not the hero anymore. She is the hero and he's the frightened one and has no credit for bravery. So that was one of the things that happened in the hospital that I think was phenomenally important. And even though he never takes that short story idea further, some of the feeling behind it, I think, is present in his later work.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: So after this really intense moment for Agnes, certainly, and for Hemingway, how does that affect their relationship? What happens next with them?
SUSAN BEEGEL: Well, it's really, really hard to tell, because as we noted, the influenza just exploded in Italy, really, just two days after Lieutenant Coulter died, and by October 15, she is sent away from the Red Cross hospital, the American Red Cross hospital where she's not needed that much, and she sent to Florence, Italy to nurse at an influenza hospital. As now, a lot of times, they set up separate hospitals for people who were infected. So she was really sent to a hot zone where medical staff were dropping like flies.
And so the two of them are parted by the disease, and as she heads off to go to this medical frontline, a serious frontline, Hemingway gives her his St. Anthony medal for good luck.And later, again, it's just a strange role reversal in A Farewell to Arms, we'll have the flip back where Catherine Barkley, the adoring nurse, gives her St. Anthony medal to Frederick before he returns to the front. But what happened in real life was that Agnes went to this medical front of the pandemic, and Ernest stayed behind at the hospital.
So it's a good thing, though, because they write to each other. And unfortunately, we don't have Hemingway's letters to Agnes, because later on, a jealous lover of hers burned them, apparently. And I think there must have been good, because we do have a letter of Agnes when she refers to Hemingway as the champion love letter writer of the world, so he must have written wonderful letters to her. But she writes to him, so she reports on what's going on at that hospital, and she reports on what's going on in England where she has a friend named Joe who's nursing.
And she writes, there were 600 cases at their hospital, including 25 nurses, five of whom have died. Cheerful, isn't it? And she writes that her mother is sending her letters about how bad it is in America, and that's giving her something else to worry about.
So the war comes to an end on November 11, in part because Germany was having problems with the flu, and 300,000 of its troops were down. And it continues on through February with, again, more fuel from all of the armistice celebrations and returning troops. And Agnes goes on to Padua, to another hospital, this time, a military hospital, where soldiers are literally dying of neglect. There's no one to nurse them because so many of the medical staff have dropped.
She wrote to Hemingway that the chauffeur who was supposed to pick her up at the train station dropped in the street and never met the train. The hospital is in such bad shape they don't even have sheets for the beds. And Hemingway had gone off to see a final battle of the war and returned and was bragging about it, apparently, to her, and she wrote that very,very tartly to him, I want you to know I've passed through some of the hardships of war, and you have no corner on the market, old dear.
So he eventually has to go home in January, 1919. Agnes decides to stay, and she goes on to another Italian hot zone at Torre di Mosto, and she writes to him about losing two patients.Again, this was an especially devastating loss for her, because they were brother and sister, aged 14 and 16. And she writes that she lost both of them just like Coulter, and she was very sad. And a few weeks after that, she writes and breaks up with him and calls off their engagement.
MATT PORTER: Susan, you've mentioned that Hemingway has had these many different experiences, many of them tragic. How has Hemingway's experiences through this pandemic, through this war, how does it show up later in his writing?
SUSAN BEEGEL: Well there was one more experience that he had which kind of overlaps between Italy and his return home, something he learned about in a letter from his father.Hemingway's Uncle Lester, his mother's brother, was married to a lovely woman named Nevada Butler. She was called Vada.
She was the kid's favorite aunt, and his dad wrote to him in Italy to tell him that Vada had died of the flu. At the time, on the very day that she died, she received a telegram letting her know that her husband, Uncle Lester, who was with the American Expeditionary Forces in France and was a pilot in France, was missing in action. And Hemingway's father writes ,truly, history is being carved deep in the flesh of our family.
So Vada dies pathetically alone, as his sister wrote, and Uncle Lester is missing in action. So when young Hemingway gets home from the war and he's ready for his hero's welcome, he discovers that Uncle Lester has arrived the week before. Uncle Lester was found and came home as the war ended, and tragically, and try to imagine this, he did not know his wife was dead until he got off the ship in the United States.
So Lester is coming home expecting this joyous reunion with his wife. Again, the triumphant military hero who returns, and instead, he meets with this crushing, devastating loss. And this is a scene that was repeated millions of times in 1918, where everyone's afraid that their soldier's going to die, and indeed, millions of them did, but even more likely that someone at home was going to die too.
Apparently, Ernest actually wrote a letter. He was a little miffed that he lost his welcome, that Lester spoiled his welcome, because, of course, the family rallied around Lester, andUncle Lester may have been a bit tart him. And he actually wrote to his mother that he could not love Uncle Lester, and then he adds, except as something abstract, like a character in fiction.
So this is where we get a really interesting bridge to the great fiction that Hemingway got out of the war and the pandemic. And I would single out two works here. We have the great short story In Another Country. It's set in Italy, but it involves a very young narrator, pretty much the same age Hemingway was when he was in Italy, and an old major, both of them wounded in the war, both of them having physical therapy at a hospital, and they strike up a friendship, and then one day, the major comes in and he's just very, very brusk to the young man, and we learn that the major's wife has died.
And the short story says of pneumonia, which is, of course, what killed people who had the flu. And it's just-- it is an influenza story. it mentions the hospital, where every time they goto the hospital, there are funerals, plural, starting from the courtyard as people come to collect their loved ones in their coffins to take them away. And it's just a very, very poignant story about this man's loss. And the major tells him, the young man who is expecting to be married, as Hemingway was when he came back, that he should not put himself in a position to lose a great love like that.
And so that becomes, in its turn, the ending of A Farewell to Arms. Now, Catherine Barkley dies in childbirth. She doesn't die of the flu, of course, because the novel's set earlier. It actually begins in 1915 and ends before the epidemic, but it's that unexpected flip where it isn't the person you're expecting to die who dies.
And Catherine dies in the rather heroic business of childbirth and trying to bring a new life into the world. Hemingway's father did a lot of obstetrics and used to tell him that more women died in childbirth every year than men in all the battles of history, and it's true that millions of women and babies still do die this way. So I think it's part of Hemingway’s genius that instead of making it dated by making it about the pandemic, he makes it about a universal fact that anyone, any woman could die in childbirth, and it's something that would go on and be universal.
But I believe that it really comes out of the tragedy of the pandemic, and that part of the lesson of that book is that why are we so in a hurry to go to war and kill one another, when it’s, as Hemingway will tell us, the world will accomplish that for free? We don't need to do it. So I guess that would be my feeling of how the pandemic influenced his work.
And I think-- I would love to see people pay more attention to In Another Country. I reread it again today for the first time, since I was having my own pandemic experience, and I found it more moving than I ever have before, and it's a pretty moving story as it is. And I guess globally, I think that experience of role reversal and of finding out that you, wounded warrior, are not the only hero.
Doctors are heroes, nurses are heroes, social workers are heroes, little girls are heroes. And Hemingway's great subject really became, I think, the extraordinary courage that ordinary people have. And I think that's something that the pandemic taught him. I think that was the great legacy of the pandemic for him.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Fascinating and so moving to think about how Hemingway was able to synthesize the pain and anger and trauma and occasional joys that one has and make them into something that can still teach us things today. And a bit on that note, I mean, even listening to his sister's letters, a lot of them sound pretty much like things we could read today. So are there things that we can learn from over 100 years ago and apply it to today?
SUSAN BEEGEL: Well, for me, I think that the great the great lessons of these letters and of Hemingway's life looking back is that, as I think about this experience, because we're still in the midst of it, there's one great reassuring message. This will end, and there will be a future. Hemingway went on to lead an amazing life of travel all over the globe, and adventure, and he wasn't the person who sought out crowds, for sure. He was happy to pack into a bullfighting arena and and watch his favorite sport that involved very little social distance.
I mean, it will end, and there will be life, and it will be rich and complete and full and exciting. And yet, I think the other message, though, is that we will be changed. We will never be the same again, and perhaps in positive ways.
Hemingway was humbled, I think, by his experience. He learned something about other people around him, as we are learning about grocery store clerks, and UPS drivers, and hospital janitors, along with people like doctors and nurses now who really stands in the breach for us, who hold us together. We're learning how unimportant we are in many ways, and we're also learning how how precious life is and how quickly it can be taken away.
And one of the things Hemingway also excelled at was simply exquisite appreciation and sensitivity to all the wonderful things around him. But yeah, you can come back from this and live a full life and win the Nobel Prize. So it's an interesting [INAUDIBLE].
There will be a future, and it will be changed, and it probably will be good for us. That's what I take from it. Also, get your flu shot.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Very reassuring, thank you. As we all are going through this, I think we all feel many different things day-to-day, moment-to-moment, so there's things, positive things we can learn from this too.
MATT PORTER: Thinking about we had two thing-- two things going on, the war, World War I, and the 1918 pandemic, what was the more traumatic moment for the world, was it the war or was it the pandemic itself?
SUSAN BEEGEL: Oh, man, it's a tough, tough question, but I go to the one story where he mentioned the flu directly. It's called A Natural History of the Dead. It compares deaths from violence, violence in the war, he talks about the bodies that he saw that were women killed in an explosion at a munitions factory, and picking pieces out of the barbwire, and he talks about decaying corpses on the battlefield, and it's pretty graphic. And then he talks about the only natural death he's ever seen, which is this horrific death from the Spanish influenza, which he describes, again, so graphically that Maxwell Perkins had a problem with it and wanted him to cut it.
And his point is that this is the way of the world. Natural or unnatural, this is how we die. His message in Farewell to Arms, I think of now, Catherine would die. That is what you did.You died.
They threw you in. They taught you the rules. And the first time they caught you off base, they killed you. That's a pretty grim world philosophy, but I think you saw those two things as working very much in harmony.
And the story ends with a strange encounter over a soldier who's dying of a traumatic brain injury and is completely unconscious, and his body has been put into a cave with some corpses awaiting removal from a dressing station. And the stretcher bearers who are putting the dead in there are upset by this, and they want the doctor to do something about it. And the doctor is like, there's absolutely nothing I can do, and if you take him out of there, you're just going to have to put him back.
And one man gets very upset and says he's going to go and shoot this dying person, and the doctor is like, that's not the way you do things. So he goes in to shoot the dying man, and the man's already dead, and he comes back and attacks the doctor who throws a plate of iodine in his eyes. And I don't even know if you want to end this way, but I think it'sHemingway just talking about having this enormously painful vision, like iodine in the eyes of what the world is like, both the human world, and the natural world.
But the bottom line is that humans don't have to act that way, and if they didn't act that way, honestly, the pandemic wouldn't have been that bad. We really have to look at our own violent behavior, and our crowd behavior, and our herd behavior, and the impulses that spawned that, the way we treat each other. Because in the end, death is the end of life, so what are we in such a hurry about?
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Wow, thank you, Susan. And I think it's-- I think it's a really intense, but poignant and appropriate way to think about and end this discussion about the pandemic from 1918, and the pandemic of today, and our role, and what we can learn from the past. So I want to thank you so much for speaking to us. As I said in our first episode talking about Hemingway, it's such a delight, even though we're talking about very heavy subjects, but it's important, and he's quite the person to have. We're lucky to have his collections and access to what he was thinking and what his family was thinking, so thank you so much.
MATT PORTER: Thank you very much. Thank you.
JAMIE RICHARDSON: Thank you for listening to this episode of JFK35, a podcast from The John F Kennedy Library Foundation. We hope you enjoyed this episode, and that you and your families remain safe during this time. Stay with us next time as we bring you more stories from The JFK Library.
WHAT IS COLLECTIVE MEMORY?
Pioneered in the early 20th century by sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the study of collective memory has garnered widespread interest across the social sciences in recent years. Henry Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, defines collective memory as “how we remember ourselves as part of a group … that forms our identity.” Groups such as nations, political parties, religious communities and sports fandoms, he explains, weave events from their collective past into a narrative that reinforces individual members’ shared sense of who they are.
Researchers often use open-recall methods to study groups’ collective memory of well-known historical events. For example, Roediger and his colleague James Wertsch, also at Washington University in St. Louis, asked Americans and Russians to name the 10 most important events of World War II. Americans most often cited the attack on Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombings of Japan and the Holocaust. Most Russians highlighted the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk and the Siege of Leningrad. The only event that appeared on both lists was D-Day, known in Russia as “the opening of the second front.” The events most strongly recalled by people in each country, the researchers say, reflect that nation’s narrative framework, or schema, for remembering the past.
Such a study could indicate what specifics about the 1918 flu people are aware of. But “as far as I know, nobody’s done it,” Wertsch says. “If you did a survey, you would come up with nothing.” Even in making comparisons with COVID-19, he says, few individuals can cite significant details about the earlier pandemic. Wertsch notes that collective memory seems to depend largely on narratives with a clear beginning, middle and end. “If there’s one cognitive instrument that is the most ubiquitous, most natural…, it’s narrative,” he says. “Not all human cultures have arithmetic number systems, let alone calculus. But all human cultures use narratives.”
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A Trove of Sad, Funny, and Familiar Stories From the 1918 Flu Pandemic
On November 21, 1918, an Indianapolis schoolteacher named Hildreth Heiney wrote to her deployed fiancé, Sergeant Kleber Hadley, about the sudden appearance of face masks in response to the global influenza pandemic. “Yes, I wore one, and so did everybody else,” she wrote cheerfully. “There were all kinds—large and small—thick and thin, some embroidered and one cat-stitched around the edge.” An order to wear masks in public had just taken effect in Indiana, and Heiney seemed to take it in stride. “O, this is a great old world!” she went on, poking fun at funny-looking mask-wearers. “And one should surely have a sense of humor.”
Heiney’s colorful letters are part of a remarkable collection of “personal narratives, manuscripts, and ephemera” about the 1918 flu in the biomedical library of the University of California, Los Angeles. There are letters from California mayors about influenza death rates Thanksgiving postcards written by children and laconic Yankee diaries, such as this tragic entry from a Mrs. Slater: “Rained. Spent the day home. Veree Clark died of influenza. E.F. King’s wife funeral. Buzzed wood home.”
Russell Johnson, a curator of history and special collections for the sciences at the UCLA Library, says that he created this intimate collection “from scratch.” Originally slated for a career in behavioral neuroscience, Johnson ended up in library school instead, where he studied the history of neuroscience and medicine. “I fell in love with cataloguing,” he says.
These soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, were hospitalized for influenza at Camp Funston. Public Domain
Today, the influenza collection includes boxes of original letters, diaries, and photographs from 1918 and 1919. In these century-old artifacts, civilians and military personnel recount harrowing and sometimes humorous experiences of life in the shadow of influenza. Many of them have special resonance in the time of COVID-19. Atlas Obscura asked Johnson how he amassed the collection, what unique lessons can be learned from these personal stories, and what became of a soldier named Alton Miller.
How did you start putting this collection together?
The UCLA biomedical library covers the history of medicine and science. Contagious diseases, such as smallpox and cholera, have always been part of what we collect. About 10 or 12 years ago, with the anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic coming up, I wasn’t seeing much in the way of personal letters and diaries. So I just started buying them individually, a lot through eBay. Now they’ve become very competitive to get on eBay, because other people are looking for them.
Who’s selling you personal letters and diaries from 1918?
Sometimes people come into big troves of letters and diaries [through family]. Or they’ll find things in storage lockers that were sold off, or estate sales. I never go to estate sales myself because they’re so competitive, but I depend on other people to go and sell to us. For example, once people saw that we were creating this collection, a bookseller up in Berkeley sold us the album of the complete Alton Miller correspondence. Booksellers love to find stuff for us. They like building collections with institutions and collectors.
Alton Miller (left) a letter from a military chaplain to Miller’s mother, describing his deteriorating condition and urging her to come (right). Click the image to zoom. UCLA Biomedical Library / Public Domain
Can you describe the Alton Miller correspondence?
It starts with this young man who is a chauffeur or driver. He’s inducted into the army and starts off at Fort Dix in New Jersey. He writes home to a sister, Adah, and to his mother and his father. We don’t see their letters, so I think what we’re seeing is probably what Adah held onto. Alton transfers to Camp Zachary Taylor, in Louisville, Kentucky, and writes to his father on October 5:
“Don’t get frightened but I have had the influenza for four days but I have not let the authorities know about it.… Our hospitals are overcrowded here and I think in another week the whole camp will be quarantined. The treatment you get in the hospitals is absolutely rotten, they say. It is so crowded that you don’t get enough to eat and it is very dirty and most of the nurses and attendants have got it, too. Once get in you have a hard job getting out.”
Then he writes letters to his sister that paint a little more serious picture than what he told his parents:
On October 5: “There are nearly 10,000 cases down here and 22 deaths were added today. I don’t know how many deaths there are all together.”
On October 6: “Adah, ambulances are running in every direction out here. They haven’t closed the camp yet, but I think they will soon. I am coming in good shape. I am very glad I did not report it and go to the hospital. They say you are lucky if you get out alive once you get in.”
And then you see a letter from a friend and from the chaplain essentially saying to the parents, “You should come, your son is in the hospital with influenza.”
Then you see an October 11 telegram from the army, saying: “Your son Alton Miller died at base hospital at one o’clock today. Wire me if you want remains shipped at government expense and to whom remains will be consigned.” It’s heartbreaking. There’s a couple of condolence letters, and then this medal at the end that was awarded the year after the war, by the community, to Alton’s mother.
How come there are so many letters available from this time?
This was during World War I, and soldiers could send letters for free, indicated by the label “soldiers’ mail.” You also see some letterheads from such institutions as the YMCA, or other organizations that provided free stationery to soldiers. Soldiers were encouraged to write. The expectation was that you do your day’s work, and then at night you sit down and write two or three letters, even when overseas. The amount of mail that went back and forth between soldiers and families is just incredible. It would be like texting today.
The mother of Alton Miller received this medal from the city of Kingston, New York, in recognition of his sacrifice during World War I. UCLA Biomedical Library / Public Domain
What can you learn from these personal narratives that you can’t really glean from reading the news and public announcements from the time?
You learn a lot of particulars of how people dealt with each other. It’s the very personal, very immediate experience that you don’t see in the news or an official report. People are talking about the inconveniences of theaters and shops being closed, or people wearing masks and how funny, how odd they look. Then it becomes commonplace because everyone is doing it.
Then there’s the day-to-day life into which influenza was intruding. When people were talking about others dying, they would distinguish whether it was with the influenza or something else—because everything else was still happening, like it is now. We’re so focused on coronavirus, and yet people are still having babies. People are still dying from heart attacks and cancer. Sometimes you might forget that this is just a component of our lives, or their lives in 1918.
What did you learn from these letters that surprised you the most?
In many letters, like that diary of Mrs. Slater, or the letters from Hildreth to her fiancé Kleber, was how much the influenza became a part of their lives—but it just seemed to be one more part of their lives. There was tragedy, but they overcame it. And the humor that they could use! Hildreth was a schoolteacher. At first, when the schools were closed, she called it a vacation: “The four weeks of vacation as a result of the epidemic of influenza almost cured me of any desire to teach school,” she wrote. There’s still this time to joke with her fiancé. Even though this horrible stuff was happening around them, life went on.