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A letter from the days of the Spanish flu | COMMENTARY

A photo of Aunt Rose, a distance relative of the authors, who wrote to two family members during the Spanish flu pandemic expressing sorrow for the loss of their child. (photo courtesy of Joyce Harrington)
A photo of Aunt Rose, a distance relative of the authors, who wrote to two family members during the Spanish flu pandemic expressing sorrow for the loss of their child. (photo courtesy of Joyce Harrington) (photo courtesy of Joyce Harrington)

November 1918

My Dear Ruth and Nevin,

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I have heard through Mrs. Lamusser’s folks that you have all been sick and you lost your little boy. I cannot tell you how sorry I am and how much I sympathize with you folks.

It seems so hard to give these little ones up and yet in all your sorrow you know he is “forever with the Lord” and you have a little angel waiting for you on the other side.

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There was so much sickness and sadness here this fall I feel sometimes that I could never smile again. So many of our friends and acquaintances were called by the terrible epidemic. I volunteered for nursing and helped for several days in the Philadelphia General Hospital, which is the alms house of Philadelphia. I was in the children’s emergency ward and oh, such sadness, some families of four, five and six children in there and perhaps father and mother dead or dying in some other part of the hospital. There was forty-one children in that ward alone. I hope that this country may never be visited with this terrible sickness again.

Hope you are all better now and may be comforted. Cousin Will joins me in love and sympathy.

As always,

Aunt Rose

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We recently came across the above letter, written to our grandparents as they mourned their baby boy, the uncle we would never know. Like much of the country at the time, our grandparents were suffering through a pandemic like the one we are experiencing now, more than 100 years later. As 7-month old Donald was dying from the flu on a remote farm 180 miles to the west near the Mason-Dixon Line, our great-great uncle, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Royer, labored in Philadelphia as acting director of health for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Uncle Frank, as he was known to us, was born on the same farm where Donald lived his too-short life, where our parents would get to grow up, and where we got to spend some of our happiest days as children. Uncle Frank’s decision to become a doctor and to study diphtheria was most likely inspired by his own mother’s grief, having lost four of her brothers and sisters to illness before reaching the age of 10.

The death tolls in Philadelphia and other big cities during the 1918 flu epidemic are well known. But less well known are the rural deaths, and in particular, the pleas from our great-great uncle and other health officials for crowd control, the 1918 version of social distancing. Foreshadowing today’s assertions to “not let the cure be worse than the problem,” the mayor and newspapers of Philadelphia decried our great-great uncle’s advocacy of business closings, travel bans and military involvement as “idiotic antics,” and went so far as to blame the “pall” that hung over the city on the crowd ban, rather than on the epidemic itself. Uncle Frank’s career with the Pennsylvania Department of Health ended abruptly in January 1919, likely a casualty of his medical precautions.

The 1918 flu epidemic smoldered in the spring and waned in the summer months, only to reemerge with a vengeance in the fall. In 1918, the world was consumed by The Great War, and though the use of masks in limiting its spread was well established, the discovery of the viral villain that caused the pandemic was over a decade away.

As a “terrible sickness” has arrived again a century later, our scientific and historical advantages have, unfortunately been Trumped by wishful thinking, dishonesty and a reversion to tribalism. The arguments to prematurely return to normalcy are disturbingly similar to those of our great-great uncle’s era.

The resulting failure to reduce the baseline in the U.S., and recent resurgences in Europe may foreshadow a sad repeat of a second wave of COVID-19 this fall. Historical perspective reminds us that, even as cases diminish in the short term, and optimism about a vaccine rises, we need to refocus rather than relax our vigilance. A vaccine available in January is of little use to a patient infected in October.

Our nation can never repay our debt to people like Aunt Rose, and to the front line and essential workers of today. However, we can surely take the personal responsibility to wear masks and abide by social distancing to protect ourselves and others.

Those of us so far unaffected need to remember that the statistics are not just numbers — they are many families' personal tragedies. Our grandparents never recovered from Donald’s death; his grave was relocated to join our grandfather upon his death in 1969.

As Aunt Rose’s letter reminds us, if we fail to learn from history and do our own small part, it’s far more likely that a great-great-grandchild of ours will unearth a familiar, heart-wrenching condolence for loss suffered in the time of the coronavirus.

John Royer (loroyer@rcn.com) is a microbiologist who lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Mary Ruth Reis (maryruth.reis@gmail.com) is a retired Montgomery County Public Schools teacher who lives in Baltimore.

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