Saturday, January 19, 2013

Influenza 1918

There have been a lot of news stories lately about this winter's flu epidemic and deaths related to it. My great-grandmother, Annie Cotton, was a bit of a hypochondriac, worrying about every sneeze, sniffle, and cough but in her defense she lost 3 of her 8 children before they reached their third birthday. I wondered if any of them had influenza listed as a cause of death and found that her daughter, Thelma Jane, died two days after her first birthday of influenza in 1918. That year caught my attention because it was the year of the greatest global influenza outbreak in recorded history - the inaccurately nicknamed Spanish Influenza.

Thelma's death on October 16, 1918 was during the worst month of the epidemic in Maine.
"Estimates are that the 1918 flu killed between 20 million and 100 million worldwide, including more than 675,000 in the United States. Approximately 47,000 Mainers got sick and around 5,000 died, but historical sources note the disease was underreported. Half of the deaths in Maine occurred in October 1918." ~ Bangor Daily News - May 15, 2009

What made this strain of influenza especially lethal was that it often invaded the lungs and caused pneumonia. Notice that pneumonia is listed as a complicating factor in Thema's death.

My grandmother, Fern Lyndell was born on March 22, 1922 and by then her mother had already buried three children:

Marion Elizabeth born 7 Mar 1915 & died 8 Oct 1916
Thelma Jane born 14 Oct 1917 & died 16 Oct 1918
Leonard Henry born 12 Feb 1919 & died 26 Apr 1921

The documentary I show to my history classes is the PBS American Experience, Influenza 1918 . It has really good interviews with those who lived through the epidemic and carries the ominous warning that it not only can happen  but it is likely to happen again. It also includes this 1918 Spanish Flu Chldren's Rhyme that gets stuck in your brain as it is oft-repeated in the video:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened a window
And In-flu-enza.

Other sources of information:

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