Last month we recognized the 100th anniversary of the official founding of the West Trenton Presbyterian Church. We’ve noted other milestones here as well, such as the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Lanning School. If you know of other such anniversaries of Ewing institutions or landmarks, please let me know, and it can be recognized here.
But this month, I consider a dark and tragic one, the 100th anniversary of the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. While the headlines today warn of how strong and widespread the current flu strain is, it thankfully pales in comparison to the great world pandemic 100 years ago, which infected 500 million people worldwide, and killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, or an estimated 3 to 6 percent of the world’s population at that time (Wikipedia), making it perhaps the deadliest event in human history.
Those are staggering statistics, difficult for us to comprehend. It was even more difficult for people at the time to understand, and to recognize the enormity of the epidemic, especially as it happened concurrent with battles of the First World War.
We think of that war as having been monumentally tragic in the number of deaths—16 million—but the epidemic that followed conservatively killed three times more people.
Much still remains uncertain about the Great Flu pandemic of 1918, which featured the H1N1 virus, and continued into 1919. It is generally accepted that the first wave or phase of the infection was first observed in March of 1918, at a US Army camp in Kansas. This first phase involved a new, very contagious strain of flu, which caused a “three day fever” from which most people recovered.
But when it resurfaced in August of 1918, it was far more deadly and menacing. By that time, it had traveled with troops, mutating and spreading rapidly among military camps and hospitals in Europe.
But it didn’t stop there. It rapidly spread around the globe, reaching every continent, bringing with unusually it high infection and morbidity rates, and causing bacterial and viral pneumonia, and damage to the immune system.
Unlike “normal” influenza viruses, which are most deadly to the very young and the elderly, this flu was particularly deadly to young adults, who are usually among the healthiest members of a population. In the US alone, nearly half of the deaths occurred in people ages 20 to 40.
Locally, Philadelphia was hit hard, as was Newark. In October, New Jersey banned public gatherings, cancelling school, church, civic, commercial and business events.
There are many accounts of people seeing a friend alive one day, and learning of their death a day or two later. Doctors, nurses and undertakers died too. Bodies accumulated faster than they could be buried. I have not yet located specific information about the pandemic’s impact in the Trenton area, but undoubtedly the area’s residents suffered and died as well. If any readers have family stories about the epidemic, there will be a place to share them.
The College of New Jersey is planning a series of events and a symposium in October 2018, sponsored by the schools of science, nursing/public health, and humanities, to mark the 100th anniversary of the epidemic, to reflect on this world event, and to share best practices for avoiding future epidemics. I’m pleased to reach out to readers of this column, inviting you to share your stories.
We recognize that this event is beyond living memory. But perhaps there are stories that have been passed down through families about members who experienced and lived through the epidemic, or about those who lost their lives due to the epidemic.
If you know of such a story in your family, and are willing to share it, we would love to speak with you, and perhaps share the story at the symposium. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest in sharing a story.
We learn from the past; if only we learned at a level consistent with the magnitude of past events! However, while a pandemic is a natural and not man-made disaster, it can be mitigated by human action. Our stories can inspire that action.