Saturday, November 17, 2018

Spanish Flu epidemic

Tennie Myrtle Sellers and Thomas Philas Marlar, October 14, 1897

Coincident with the conclusion of The Great War was the spread of Spanish influenza, a world-wide plague of misery and death. Three to six percent of the world's population perished in the relatively short time that the flu ravaged humanity in every country.

My husband's great-grandmother, Tennie Myrtle Sellers Marlar (1880-1919), died of influenza on January 10, 1919 in a rural town called Aquilla, Texas. She left behind five children from age 18 down to age 6. None of her grandchildren ever knew her but they know her end story. They say she took care of other family members with the flu, and when it came to her, she couldn't fight it through her exhaustion. It is true that the young and healthy were more likely to die from Spanish influenza.

I asked my Baba (1890-1990) about her experience during the influenza; she caught it but my grandpa did not. The severity was what set it apart from any other illness she ever had. For three weeks she was so ill in their boarding house in Monessen, Pennsylvania, that she thought it was the end, and even wished at times that she could die. For a young mother to feel that way indicates how awfully sick influenza made her. No one dared come into their home to help her except an Italian neighbor who brought in a hot water bottle. Presumably she brought in food also. Baba had three of her own children and had charge of her deceased sister's children as well.

Baba told me that her baby George (1917-1918) died of diphtheria. She even described the gasping for breath that tortures those dying of diphtheria. When I found his death certificate the cause of death was listed as influenza. Diphtheria wasn't mentioned. Perhaps the influenza caused the same gasping for air. We don't even have a photograph of little George.

Baba and Grandpa with their baby John and daughter Mary, spring 1917
the two children on the left belong to Baba's deceased sister Anna

Baba mentioned that at the time of George's death and of the influenza, coffins were stacked in the cemetery awaiting burial. Healthy men were in short supply so the coffins sat. And who can even say how many deceased waited at the undertaker's parlor because a coffin shortage existed? In some places formal funerals were prohibited to prevent the spread of influenza. Schools were closed, churches suspended services. I don't know about George's burial. If Baba was sick at the time of George's death she wouldn't have gone to the cemetery.

Pittsburgh and its environs was hit harder by flu than any other American city of the same size. The population's health was already compromised by industrial pollution which might explain why the flu's death rate was on the high side. Hundreds of children were orphaned.

Europe was ravaged by Spanish influenza. Baba's older brother, Michael, had returned to Europe with his wife Mary and family in 1915. They survived the war years only to lose several children to influenza. Aching in agony, Mary wished they had never returned to their home village. The conditions must have been dreadful. The physical and emotional scars of war and the accompanying afflictions--starvation, homelessness, disrupted transportation and services--were bad enough. Then the pestilence swooped in on them.

With the annual development and availability of flu vaccine, such a scourge should not happen again.

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