Dying by Inches: Epidemics and Oral History

Many comparisons have recently been made between COVID-19 and the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19. There has also been a lot of great research by historians into that pandemic, specifically to discover any lessons that might apply to future pandemics. Historians of medicine Howard Markel and Alexandra Stern at the University of Michigan conducted a large study of the Spanish Flu in the wake of the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s. One of the most important lessons they learned was the difference that social distancing could make. Remember the graph that was in the news early on in the COVID-19 pandemic which showed the differences in case-fatality rates between Philadelphia and St. Louis? This is where the evidence for the concept of “flattening the curve” comes from. The results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from the same effort then compiled all kinds of information in an online encyclopedia of the Spanish Flu.

We at the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley have our own stories that touch on the Spanish Flu. Using our “Advanced Search” fields in our collection’s search engine, you can search using a number of terms to bring up these oral histories. I found eight for “Spanish Flu,” accounting for duplications. But it’s important to try different search terms. When I searched “flu” and “1918,” I got 591 hits. And when I pull up an oral history in PDF form by clicking “view transcript,” I hit Ctrl-F (or Command-F if you have a Mac), and type a search term into the field. When I hit “Enter,” I’m taken right to each location in the transcript where that word is mentioned, in sequence. A lot of the mentions of flu come from our Rosie the Riveter World War II Homefront Project and a series on Russian immigrants to the US that was conducted by UC Berkeley Professor Richard A. Pierce in the 1960s and 70s.

Usually there is just a brief mention or anecdote about that dreadful year 1918, as these are life histories about much more than that time of crisis. But what’s striking about these narratives is just how much was going on at the time. First of all, there was a world war that had claimed the lives of tens of millions of people. Social order had disintegrated across much of Eurasia; harvests were not attended to; revolution was overturning society in Russia; Russian Jews were being killed and displaced in pogroms, and millions of young men were returning from the Great War to their homes thousands of miles away, in many cases bringing new and unfamiliar germs along with them back to their families and communities. In addition, organized national public health institutions were underdeveloped in many countries, including in the United States. The newly named US Public Health Service was only six years old when the flu struck, and the germ theory of disease had only begun to shape public health policy over the previous few decades. Then, as now, states and municipalities in the US had widely varying responses to the epidemic. Furthermore, no one knew exactly what viruses were at the time. Though much larger bacteria and parasites could be seen under a basic microscope, viruses were defined as undetectable substances that passed through the finest filters they had for measuring particles. So, in addition to a poor understanding of the nature of viruses, part of what made the Spanish Flu so devastating was that human bodies in 1918 were in general more vulnerable to disease at that particular moment because of all of the other factors that tended to cluster around epidemics: war, famine, persecution, and mass refugee migration.

Here Cal professor of business Jacob Marschak reminisces with his sister Frances and historian Richard Pierce about fleeing the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, on a boat to Sevastopol:

Jacob Marschak: That was already after the Armistice, and there were many German prisoners returning. The Spanish flu was then raging, and was quite devastating. Many died of it. On the boat I got a terrible attack of it, and my sister nursed me. One man died of it and we buried him at sea.

Frances Sobotka: On the steamer he was severely ill with Spanish flu; I didn’t get it but he did, and it was very hard on him, because it was already about October, very cold, and he had the highest fever that I ever knew, and we had only places to be on the deck. Then somebody allowed him to go and stay in the machine compartment, which was too hot, and he always had a bottle of cognac with him. He was no more a drunkard than you or I, but somebody told him that it was the best thing against Spanish flu. By the time we reached Sevastopol he could already walk, but he was still very weak, and held my shoulder as if I was his stick.

Jacob Marschak, “Recollections of Kiev and the Northern Caucasus, 1917-18,” conducted by Richard A. Pierce in 1968 (Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1971) 75.

Fate, chance, and one’s family, social, and financial resources helped determine who lived and died. Mary Prout, one of the narrators for our Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front Project, describes her aunt’s good fortune when the flu came for her. Here she is from an interview in 2002 with Ben Bicais:

My mother was a housewife, but she became a nurse before my mom and dad got married. An excellent nurse, loved it. But her father didn’t want her to become a nurse because he felt that it was too hard on girls. They had to do all the custodial work and everything. So she said, “Okay, Father, I’ll graduate from high school, and then in three years I’m going to go to become a nurse.” And he said, “That’s fair enough.” So she had a young sister, and in three years, they both went to Mary’s Help [Hospital], both became RNs. Then after— well, it was after the war, I guess, my aunt was just a little gal, and she was getting that virulent flu that they had then, that terrible flu. It was just awful. So my mother knew that she wouldn’t live through it. So Mom tried to get an ambulance, but she couldn’t find one, so she got a hearse, and she went down to the veteran’s hospital in Palo Alto, picked up my aunt and saved her life, really. … Oh, yes, that was terrible. People were dying by the inches.

Mary Hall Prout, “Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project” conducted by Ben Bicais in 2002, (Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2002) 27.

Things were bad enough here in the US, but in Russia, years of war and the Bolshevik Revolution had depleted supplies of food, and people had to barter away the last of their possessions for scraps. Russian émigré Valentina Vernon, whom historian Richard Pierce interviewed in 1980, described her diet in 1918:

Vernon: We ground that horrible stuff, and then used the skins from the potatoes you could get a few of potatoes, they were a sort of luxury. The skins were put in the oven and dried out and made into a powder, and the cakes made out of the dried vegetables were rolled in the black stuff and fried in coco-butter. Awful! There was no butter, but you still could find some coconut. And then the dried fish (seledki) , that was the main supply of food. So naturally we lost some weight. And this was our existence until we left.

 Pierce: When did you leave?

Vernon: In September, 1918, just 18 days before the birth of my son. I had the Spanish flu, but I didn’t die, and my son didn’t either. Like the doctor here, who says Russian women are awfully tough! But my sister-in-law refused to leave, and they shot her husband. (Vernon, 1980, 15)

Another émigré, Boris Shebeko, describes his experiences during the First World War and the Russian Civil War in his oral history. Since I couldn’t search this PDF – which was just a scan of an old photostat copy – I started scrolling through the transcript for references around the time period of the end of World War One. I quickly became immersed in the stories. He seemed to careen from one life-threatening experience to another: almost being overtaken by singing Cossacks, who rode their horses directly into his machine-gun fire; stepping over giant cracks on a march across the frozen Lake Baikal; or getting into a knife-fight with French sailors in Constantinople. He even suspected his colleague of being a serial killer! The Spanish Flu was just one of his problems in those days.

Boris Shebeko, “Boris Shebeko: Russian Civil War 1918-1922 and Emigration,” conducted by Richard Pierce in 1960. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1961.

After reading through these fascinating stories, I was left wondering what influenza meant in those chaotic contexts of war, migration, and near-starvation.  In 1918, the global circulation of people was higher than at any time in history. And by some measures, the world was much more interconnected in 1918 than it was even as late as the 1970s. In 2020, we have our own special mix of challenges. We are clearly, obviously much more interconnected on a global scale. In 2018, there were 4.3 billion passengers on flights. Add this incredible daily migration across the globe to our exposure to ecosystems that had until now been isolated from this global community, and we see an increase in our exposure to germs to which we have no natural immunity. We call these new epidemics —SARS, Zika, Ebola, COVID-19—”emerging” diseases for these reasons. Although we know so much more about viruses and how to treat them than we did in 1918, we have not learned as much as we could from previous pandemics. Scarier yet, the knowledge we do have has not guided policy, and in some ways we are still very much flying blind in this pandemic.

What do these oral histories tell us about epidemics? As horrifying and tragic as some of these stories are, they are the stories of survivors, those who were lucky, resourceful, and somehow positioned well enough to help themselves or to help others. As we learned in our First Response podcast, about the early AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, people tend to have two basic reactions in epidemics: fear, which can lead to scapegoating and selfishness; and love, sympathy, and a sense of duty to family, communities and even to complete strangers, which lead to mutual aid, careful planning, adaptation to changing circumstances, and rational action based on the available facts. Let’s allow these histories of resilient survivors to be our guides, now and into the future.

Paul Burnett