Since 2016, U.S. medical historian Jake Wynn has been studying and writing about the Spanish flu of 1918-1920, particularly its impact on Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. Jake writes the popular Wynning History blog, about the Williams Valley section of the coal region. He also works at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Fredrick, MD.
Mitch Troutman connected with Mr. Wynn to get his take on what we’re experiencing with COVID-19. Are there important lessons from the past we should be paying attention to?
Mitch Troutman: Before we get into the history of the Spanish flu, what’s your coronavirus experience right now?
Jake Wynn: Ah, living in Washington, DC has been interesting through all of this. I have a small 600 square foot apartment on the eighth floor close to downtown, so it’s still not a lot of space. Thankfully we have a rooftop that we can go up on to get some fresh air. Yesterday afternoon there were maybe three people between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. It was like that old History Channel program, Life After People. It was very, very eerie. And there’s been lots of moments like that.
MT: So you’ve had some writing about the Spanish flu on Wynning History, and you put a bunch more out recently. Can you talk about how it’s been received?
JW: My readership is off the charts right now. I’m on track to have by far the best year ever on the blog. I’ve long been fascinated by what happened in 1918. I work in a civil war medicine museum. So medicine, medical history is kind of my thing. I started writing about the 1918 Spanish flu, the influenza pandemic, in 2016. Now I’ve kind of doubled down on that and yeah, it resonates with people in a way that it didn’t before.
1918 was a once-in-a-generation pandemic that caused havoc, chaos, and death across the world. It changed the course of history. Unfortunately, 100 years later, we’re going to have a similar kind of moment, hopefully with a death toll less than the 50 to 100 million people that died in 1918, including 600,000+ Americans. It’s scary, but there are definitely lessons we can draw from it.
MT: What’s the story of the Spanish flu in a nutshell?
JW: The influenza pandemic started in the spring of 1918. First, there’s a huge influenza outbreak in the spring in the US. The leading theory is that it goes from the army camps, goes with the soldiers off to Europe to fight in World War I. Then at some point during the summer or the late summer, the flu mutates and becomes much more virulent, easily spread and catastrophic.
The result starts in Europe on the front lines. Soldiers are dropping dead in the trenches. Then it spreads to civilian populations. People are dropping dead in the streets of European cities and army camps. It gets its name, the “Spanish flu,” not because it originated in Spain, but because Spain, the only country in Europe not in the war, didn’t have a censored, war-time press. They were reporting honestly on this plague killing people by the thousands.
Ultimately, it came back to the United States on troop ships, arriving here at the end of September 1918. Philadelphia was one of the hardest hit cities. Despite rumors that the virus was already in the city, they made the catastrophic mistake of holding their biggest ever parade with millions of people in attendance. I think something on the order of 12,000 people died in about one month in Philadelphia. Meanwhile it was spreading all across the United States. In the month of October, the number of Americans who died was similar to the number who died during the entire Civil War. In a month. Every community was hit. Mass graves have been found in Pennsylvania and all over the country.
And then it seemed to suddenly stop.
They didn’t do social distancing until it was already too late. The disease in 1918 spread so much faster, and its symptoms came on a lot faster too. Today with COVID-19, you could be walking around carrying this thing around with you and spreading it to people for five to fourteen days. In 1918, if you got the virus, within about 24 to 48 hours you could be on your deathbed.
So what ends up happening is that once that curve goes up exponentially, it just drops off all of a sudden and the disease seemingly disappears. It took about a month for that to happen across the United States.
But that’s not the last of it. There are more outbreaks in 1918 and 1920, but nowhere near as bad as the fall of 1918. Globally it’s estimated to have killed 50 to 100 million people, significantly more people than died in World War I. It was just absolutely devastating, and truly did change the course of history.
MT: What do you mean it changed the course of history?
JW: What is interesting about 1918 is that among the hardest hit populations were young adults. That is not typical. A lot of young people who died were prominent people. You know, there was no protection from this thing. It wiped out artists, authors, musicians, sports players, politicians, business leaders. The virus didn’t care. It took them all out. I think it really did change the course of history because so many would have still been around and who knows how history could have been different?
MT: Your great-great-grandma was a nurse in 1918, is that right?
JW: Yeah, that’s partially what sparked some of the interest into this. Her name was Mabel Willard, before she got married and then she was Mabel William Warfield. She grew up in Williams Valley in northern Dauphin County. She was a volunteer nurse in October of 1918, at the town’s emergency hospital.
Williamstown, within a week of the outbreak, had about 1,000 cases. The hospital was overwhelmed within days, so the US Army sent in tents and set up a field hospital in one of the school yards adjacent to the hospital. I learned recently that she was quite likely pregnant during all of this. And pretty early on, as was the case with many nurses – both professional and volunteer – she came down with the flu and within a matter of a day or two, she was dead.
So it changed the course of my family’s life. My great-grandfather was only two or three when she died. He was raised by his stepmother and, you know, that wasn’t a great situation for him. It got passed down through the family that my great-great-grandmother died trying to save others. It’s a story that’s very common.
MT: So what do you think we can learn from it now that we’re facing Covid-19?
JW: Well, one thing unfortunately is kind of passed, and that is taking it seriously. I was posting about Covid-19 since January and then especially in February when the US got its first case. And, you know, there were plans for this. There were contingencies for this. And as far as we can tell, those weren’t followed and it was downplayed and downplayed until early this month, and then it ends up exploding. And that is totally 100% foreseeable. People were warning about that. So at the point we started doing social distancing it was, in some cases, too late. Now, that’s not to say that it’s not effective now. We should continue doing this. The point is, we got a late start even though there was plenty of advance warning.
In 1918, in the height of that October outbreak, the U.S. shut down everything for a month. Basically for the entire month of October and even in some places, early November, everything was closed. They’re telling residents of towns when it’s okay to go shopping so that they limit the amount of people. I wrote a story about Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, about the police enforcing groups of people not to congregate and arresting people for that, keeping people out of saloons. They took it really seriously for a month before it slowed down.
This should be taken seriously. We have to ride this out. The best thing we can do now is listen to the public health experts. These are the people who made their life’s work saving lives, preparing for this situation. If they say we need to maintain social distance and keep these shutdowns going, you know, for another month or two months, in order to save lives, we really should listen to them. If at any point we give up and say, “we have to save the economy, people need to get back to work…” there is a direct line between that and hundreds of thousands of deaths. And that’s appalling.
If we do that the US will have one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in the world. That’s the reality of it. This isn’t about politics. This is the reality of a virus that does not care whether you tell the truth or not. It is going to do what it’s going to do unless you take steps to stop it.
MT: In 1918, were there issues like we’re having today? Are there shortages of medical supplies, people hoarding or price gouging?
JW: Not really, and that is mostly because and what is unique about 1918 compared to today, is that the United States was already on a wartime footing. We had been at war for a year and a half and there was already rationing in place. There were pretty firm government controls over virtually all aspects of American life and on free speech as well. The federal and state governments were so focused on the war effort, and those things were already implemented. So, no you don’t see it as much.
You did see people disregarding the orders for quarantines. People who break into their neighborhood bar and have some drinking sessions through all of this. Alcoholism, from what I found, became a major problem because all these people were not working and so people got into their habits, drunk people wandering the streets.
Supplies were a big problem not because there weren’t enough of them, but because they were all in Europe. They were all in support of the American war effort on the Western Front of World War I. There were very few well trained doctors in the United States. So what we see right now in 2020, schools in New York are relaxing laws about who can practice medicine, and in some cases, allowing medical students to go work in the hospitals. That is what they did in 1918 as well. Same with nurses. And supplies, you know, most of these little towns and communities did not have medical supplies on hand. Many of them didn’t have any hospital facilities at all. And so the state government really goes all in on getting supplies to wherever they’re needed most.
It turns out one of the hardest hit areas are the coal fields of the anthracite region. Because of how close the area is to Philadelphia, which had the worst outbreak in America, as well as the kind of conditions on the ground in these communities: people living very close together in tight proximity. In Schuylkill County specifically, the US Army actually established a headquarters in Pottsville and distributed supplies as well as personnel out to these smaller communities.
It’s hard to imagine, especially now, with the stage of the Covid-19 pandemic we are in. Every little community had 500 cases, 600 cases, 1000 cases. Minersville was arguably the hardest hit in the coal region. They have something on the order of 3000 cases, and 700 to 800 deaths in a community of about 8000 people. It was catastrophic. That’s the situation. The local infrastructure was totally overwhelmed and there needed to be state and federal assistance. If this is any indication for today, rural areas will not be spared.
MT: Wow. Okay. So you said the Spanish Flu ended suddenly. Why is that and could we expect the same thing with Covid-19?
JW: I don’t think we can expect the same thing. I’m not an expert. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a public health expert by any means. I’m a mere medical historian. But in 1918 the thing spread so quickly that virtually everybody who was going to be exposed to it got exposed. So then it was really just a matter of whether or not your body could fight the thing off, because there was very little the doctors could actually do for you. It oftentimes wasn’t the virus itself that killed you. It was the resulting pneumonia, and that’s exactly what they’re seeing today with Covid-19: that your lungs filled with fluid and you essentially drown. It’s brutal. I don’t like talking about that, but that’s the reality of what we’re facing.
The difference today is there’s such a long time between you getting it and showing symptoms, it can be spread a lot further and you can hold on to this thing a lot longer before you get really, really sick. The sudden appearance and disappearance of it is unique to 1918. I do not believe we are going to see that again. Public health experts are warning this is going to be a 12 to 18 month process that we’re dealing with here, until a proven vaccine can be developed to inoculate populations against this.
MT: Are there any other lessons you want to point out?
JW: Yeah, I mean, I think the most important thing is listening. Listen, listen, listen to the experts on this. This is not something that you can listen to Joe Schmo on Facebook about. This is, by all accounts, a once in a generation event. This is something that has been feared for decades, and it is here. That’s the reality of it. This is far worse than anything we’ve seen in our lifetime. And it’s scary.
But it’s also good to know the history of this because we faced this before. In 1918 the approximate death rate was 5%. Today we’re looking at very likely 2% to 3%, which is catastrophic, but it’s also less than what we faced in 1918. They made it through with a lot less medical equipment than we did. We can get through this.
This is our biggest national challenge probably since World War II. So it needs to be treated with that level of respect. It’s a national challenge that we all have to face together, whether we like it or not.
MT: Before we end, there’s two things you’re asking people to do, correct? To keep a journal and to share family history, right?
JW: Yes. True to both of those things. I am encouraging people to keep a journal. One of the things that I find most disappointing in my studies about 1918 is that I have come across very few primary sources written by people who lived through it. If we keep track of it, our future selves can look back on what we were experiencing, and future historians can have all of these sources to say: this is what it was like to live through the moment.
On the other side about, you know, sharing family stories, there is a link on my blog from about two weeks ago about giving access to these family stories. Almost everybody that I’ve talked to about 1918 has some family story, or a community story, whether they were the medical professionals helping or whether they were family members lost to the flu in 1918. It was a very traumatic event. I want to tap into some of those collective memories because they too have some important lessons to teach us.
Want to read more about the Spanish flu’s impact on the anthracite coal region in 1918? Check out Wynning History for a growing list of stories about the pandemic and much more.
Mitch Troutman is an organizer, writer, and educator based in Central Pennsylvania. He is currently writing a book on the history of bootleg coal mining.
Jake Wynn is the Director of Interpretation at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. He grew up in Williamstown, Pennsylvania and has long been interested in the history of the Coal Region and writes about it at wynninghistory.com. He currently lives in Washington, DC.