Why a Deadly Pandemic Aroused Less Drama in 1918

WashU’s pandemic footballers, circa 1918.

The first time a boy broke up with me, I thought no one had ever felt such pain. Now, I am living (so far so good) through my first pandemic, and nothing has ever felt so surreal. The sudden halt to life as we know it, the arguments between politicians and scientists, the greedy bursts of rebellion, the fact that we are coping with all this while people keep getting shot and a civil rights movement gathers itself for yet another round .…

Accounts of the Black Death do not help. But Washington University archivist Sonya Rooney sends me a file that feels closer to home: news clips about the Spanish flu, with clips from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and links to 1918 issues of the Student Life newspaper.

And I read about a sudden halt to life as they know it.

Washington University closes for six weeks. (Zoom is not an option.) There are strenuous arguments between the mayor and the health commissioner. The flu rages first in New England, and two St. Louisans who were vacationing back East are brought home in closed coffins. A bartender is arrested because people trooped in after him when he went into his closed bar for a nip. A shopkeeper is accused of “assuming an attitude of defiance”; he denies advertising a sale but feels it his duty to stay open and make sure people have shoes and rubbers (galoshes, I presume) to keep them healthy. Public health messages abound: “Remember your cold, under other conditions a trivial matter, is now a public menace.”

I read on. Student Life wryly runs a blank box as a “detailed composite of student activities during the past week.” There is a photo of the football team crouched for a kickoff, every player wearing a gauze influenza mask. Students probably made those masks; they have been volunteering for the Red Cross, cutting and stitching in Graham Chapel. The scenes are more vivid as I read—but certain details seem odd, and I keep seeing references to “barracks” and “messing.” Then I remember: World War I. The university has been under military control since the previous April, with soldiers crowding onto campus for training. The June Commencement must have felt hollow: One-third of the graduates in engineering, law, and architecture did not walk, because they were already overseas fighting.

A pandemic and a war, a pandemic and a civil-rights revolution … Only the shapes of crisis change. Human nature does not. To wit: The ban on public gatherings is soon lifted, which health commissioner Max Starkloff warns is premature. Celebration is forbidden even on Armistice Day, November 11, but people have already begun to party in the name of peace, and when a rainstorm breaks out, they crowd into taverns. “I fear the effects of this,” Starkloff mutters.

Schools reopen on November 14, but infections surge and the schools are closed again November 28. Children are banned from ten-cent stores and theaters, which remain open. Cases peak in early December, with 1,467 new cases a day (the number may sound familiar). Deaths peak a week later at nearly sixty per day.

Then the flu just seems to wear itself out, and the number of cases plummets fast. On December 28, all bans are lifted.

By this point in my research, my sense of life’s strangeness, that eerie half-dream state I have felt for half a year, has completely worn off. I feel only a tingling, like gums coming back to life after that weird thick-tongued numbness in the dentist’s chair. Nothing is new under the sun.

But why is our pandemic dragging on so long, I wonder, childish in a way that would have been a luxury in 1918.

The Spanish flu was a different virus, of course. Tragically, it was deadliest for young adults. So why is there not more panic in the student newspaper or the daily? Threaded through the various articles is a cheery practicality, and I get the sure sense that by and large, people trust what they are told. They are not like us, cynical, wary of docility, at once sharper and more stupid. Also—and this may be relevant—in 1918 they are tougher, more accustomed to hardship, less self-indulgent. People do not freak out when told to stay home—or if they do, it happens in private. Masks are not political tokens or excuses to fight. There is no social media to stoke conflict. Instead of reading about evangelical churches defying orders and women shrieking that they are washed in the blood of Jesus and will not die, I find only a calm announcement that the archbishop has excused Catholics from their obligation to attend Mass. Instead of scientists pointing out that there are hundreds of other zoonotic diseases ready to emerge and politicians critiquing scientists as idiots, there are recommendations from the Surgeon General to avoid unnecessary crowding, smother your coughs and sneezes, open the windows whenever possible. “Food will win the war if you give it a chance; help by choosing and chewing your food well.” “Avoid tight clothes, tight shoes, tight gloves—seek to make nature your ally not your prisoner.” “When the air is pure breathe all of it you can—breathe deeply.”

A century has deepened our scientific knowledge, but the recommended practices are not so different. (Notice how we all instinctively put on loose T-shirts?) What is different, in 1918, is that there is far less conflict, angst, and drama. Perhaps it was all sucked up by the war? I get lost for an hour, reading about the professor whose book, Pan-Germanism, predicted the war—but so angered St. Louisans that the university chancellor was forced to make the first public statement supporting academic freedom. Next I read about an English literature professor who organizes sixteen undergraduates to drive ambulances and trucks in France. A French professor who enlists in the French army and is awarded the Croix de Guerre. A group of medical faculty and students who staff a base hospital in Rouen, France, saving nearly every casualty and returning home with war decorations.

“I miss a lot of things,” writes otolaryngologist Arthur Proetz from that base hospital. “Bell telephones, hot water taps, steam heat, barbers and FRIENDS…. On the other hand, I smoke all I can get, eat onions, snails and horsemeat, confront the rarest, oldest Camembert without fainting.” My grin fades a few seconds later, as I read of the horrors of gas gangrene and the Allied offensive that took their fifty-patients-a-day caseload to five hundred. The med students who scrubbed up to help learned so much that they were handed their degrees while still serving overseas—the only class ever to graduate away from St. Louis.

It is easy to see how the Great War could dwarf the pandemic. A November Student Life reports that a professor’s brother died of war wounds in France, and faculty wives are mending uniforms for the soldiers in training. Not until page eight do I see “Influenza Checked,” with physicians (again, prematurely) declaring it “a thing of the past.” The week school reopens, Student Life has the football match with Saint Louis University as its biggest headline, and the society column mentions engagements announced at a luncheon and news of a big dance. The soldiers are headed home!

St. Louis has the fewest pandemic deaths of any large city in the nation. There is a brief flare of influenza on March 11, 1919—more than fifty cases at City Hospital, with seven deaths. But the following week’s issue of Student Life has “Union Masque to Be Riot of Merrymaking” and “Gertrude Walther Declared Winner of Popularity Contest” on its front page. Architecture students are celebrating with a costume dance, new clubs have formed, and there is a fizzy sense of fun in the air. The ad offering to tailor young men’s military uniforms have been replaced by an ad from the same tailor reminding them, “Clothes Don’t Make the Man. But they do give an initial impression….” There are jobs to be snagged, lovers to be wooed.

Life has not ended after all—except for those who are now mourned, far more killed at war than by the deadly flu. A black ribbon of sorrow runs through the gaiety, with talk of erecting a building to honor the war dead, plaques hung, heroes remembered. But life is going forward. And as new and surreal as the next pandemic will seem, it, too, will reach an end.

The difference will be how much damage is done by the mistrust, the politicization, the drama.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.