Recalling 1918 In a Personal Way
One of the side effects of a health epidemic is a decline in the stock market. As this is being written, the Dow Jones average has lost almost 1,000 points in the last few days. Experts blame it on the Coronavirus in China, or more precisely the fear that it could spread into a worldwide epidemic that could hurt businesses and lives. Some may wonder why there is all this fuss about the virus. We have all seen flu epidemics throughout history.
The reason for the concern is that medical people have memories. There is virtually no one alive who was old enough to experience a worldwide epidemic firsthand. And increasingly few of us even had relatives who remember 1918. We are among the few. The McCormick family of Philadelphia had 10 children when World War One was going on. A deadly flu epidemic had appeared in Europe. It was initially called the Spanish flu because early cases were found in Spain, but it is doubtful it began there. It’s more likely the disease started with soldiers in the miserable trenches of the war. Wherever it started, it spread quickly, and before it was over, 50 million people had died. Over 600,000 died in the U.S., more than the number of Americans killed in the war.
The disease reached the United States in three stages, and nothing so deadly had been seen in American history. One of the worst-hit cities in the U.S. was Philadelphia, where 12,000 died within a year. The McCormick family saw it tragically up close and personal.
The first wave of the disease hit in the spring of 1918. The disease was so deadly that it killed many people before they even realized how sick they were and could seek medical treatment. The medical community was overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses caught the disease from patients. Many died. The city took drastic measures to prevent the contagion, including closing bars and other gathering places.
The McCormick family’s first casualty was the second oldest, Timothy, who died on May 29, just short of his 25th birthday. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, the disease seemed to pause, but in the fall, the second and most deadly wave hit the country. The oldest in the McCormick family, 27-year-old William, died on October 19. When he became ill, his sister Mary, 24, left her nursing job in Brooklyn to take care of him. One morning she told the family that his fever was breaking and the crisis had passed. She left for Brooklyn. William died the next day. Mary herself came down with disease and died within two weeks. These three were the eldest of the McCormick clan. The fourth oldest, John, got the flu at age 22 but survived. You would not be reading this had he not. He was your writer’s father.
There were six younger children in the family. They lived in crowded circumstances, but none got sick. This was consistent with one of several mysteries surrounding the epidemic. It struck those in the prime of their lives, largely sparing the young and elderly. One theory to solve this mystery blames aspirin as the culprit. It had only been in common use for a few decades. We will never know if our family used it, but Philadelphia was a pharmaceutical center (still is), and it is likely many people took it to relieve fevers. Aspirin toxicity, which can be deadly, was unknown at the time. People may have figured if a couple of aspirin helped with colds and fevers, a bunch would work even better. Many of the dead had symptoms of aspirin toxicity.
Another mystery is why the flu epidemic ended as suddenly as it began. Why was the disease so ferocious in the first place, unmatched by anything in the last 100 years? And why it was so severe in Philadelphia?
But we seemed to have learned from that tragic experience. Today we know the dangers of overdosing with common pain killers. The drug industry has come up with antibiotics that are effective against disease epidemics. Unlike the 1918 flu, coronavirus is well known and a new strain of it was quickly identified. But when an outbreak of something so infectious occurs, the medical community takes no chances, always wary that diseases have a mind of their own and can have unpredictable and terrible consequences. Much more than a decline in the stock market.