by Debra Walker, State Committeewoman for Monroe County, and Upper Keys co-chair

My grandmother Rebecca Mitchell Campbell died of the Spanish flu one hundred years ago. The echoes of it still reverberate across the generations through stories told and retold in my childhood. My mom heard them from the grandmothers who raised her. A toddler at the time, she had no memory of the great influenza, nor of the mother who was lost to it, however, it was foundational to her sense of self throughout her life. She longed for a family of her own, joyously adopting me after ten years of marriage without children. She cherished the role of mother, and often infused conversation with accounts of the strict disciplinary styles of her grandmothers, who cared for her in turn, but lacked warmth and enthusiasm for the task. Grandma “Ma” Mitchell was exhausted after bearing twelve children, and raising six to adulthood, only to see Rebecca lost to flu. Grandmother Campbell was distant, and resented the religious practices (different protestant denominations) Ma taught her grandkids; thus they got retrained regularly, and were “both sprinkled and dunked,” a reference to baptism practices. When my mother turned nine, my grandfather moved the family to a city in another state, where he found a factory job. The story Mom told most frequently was about the long drive to her new home; the youngest, she sat on a board placed between the seats of a Model T Ford. Distant from the extended family, the four children raised themselves after that while my granddad worked to support them; they remained close throughout their lives.

The plague that rewrote my mother’s life story probably started in Haskell County, Kansas around January 1918. The first victims of “lagrippe” were treated by a local doctor, who reported them to public health authorities as required. While the flu raged through Haskell County, sickening dozens, a young soldier visited his Haskell County home, then returned to base at Ft. Riley, Kansas, where the flu appeared in March 1918. Shortly after being infected, Ft. Riley soldiers were shipped to bases in Europe to join in the Great War. The close quarters of camp life permitted the virus to mutate rapidly, and by May, it had become deadly. The new plague was dubbed the Spanish Flu, which is a misnomer. Kansas flu is more accurate, and some say, pig farming was the vehicle for the jump to humans in that case.

By early 1920, the pandemic wave had passed around the world several times, mutating with each pass. When Rebecca heard of a flu-infected family down the road with no one to care for them, she went to nurse them. She had probably survived prior waves of the flu, and perhaps she thought she was already immune. Not meaning to, she brought influenza home to the Campbell household, where all were infected and still in their beds, unable to attend the funeral, when Rebecca died on February 20, 1920.

The Spanish flu took the young and strong first because the elderly had some residual immunity to it from a prior epidemic. In contrast, COVID-19 is taking aim at our elderly and immune-compromised communities. There are probably lots of reasons for this, including modern sanitizing procedures that limit our exposure to potential pathogens that would boost herd immunity. Epidemiologists have suggested that pandemics happen every 80-100 years precisely because herd immunity to a particular pathogen can disappear with a complete population replacement.

Where does this story of the Great Influenza leave us today? As an archaeologist with a long-term, big-picture perspective, I submit the following rather random observations, drawn from a variety of sources:

  1. 2020 is the defining year in our lives. According to Facebook, Gen-C will be the name given to kids born in 2020 and beyond.
  2. The question of whether we live in a globally-connected world has been answered.
  3. Science doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not.
  4. We never give our ancestors enough credit for getting things done.
  5. All innovation builds on the heavy lifting of our ancestors.
  6. The inertia associated with routine behavior is very difficult to redirect.
  7. Leadership in a pandemic age must draw on our collective human experience: the best science, the best math, and the best historical narrative that we can muster.
  8. Leadership is transformational in a time of crisis, either for the collective good, or not so much.
  9. Despite reports to the contrary from our political rivals, there is such a thing as a public good; it is grounded in good public health policy.
  10. All politics is still local, so get busy.

If I am blessed to remain healthy in this dark time, I will expand on some of these points over the next couple of months, mostly because I can’t concentrate on other writing projects, and the process is cathartic.

If you remain healthy, I hope to read here what you are thinking about our current calamity, and what you think our proper course of political action should be. Let’s start a conversation here about the public good, about how we can work together while apart, and about what action we can take now and in the near future.

Effective political action involves aligning disparate interests in a common cause, establishing a clear, shared vision of a better future, and identifying the strategic actions needed to close the gap and move from the unprecedented present to the unknowable future. Let’s get to work on it today.

Finally, let’s say a collective thank you to the heroes of our time, those on the front lines of local government, healthcare, and essential services. If we remain healthy or successfully recover from the 2020 plague, it will be because of them.

To read more about the last pandemic, I suggest:

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, by historian John M. Barry (2004), a source that informed this blogpost.

You might also like:

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Pulitzer prize winning journalist Laurie Garrett (1994).

The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, by microbiologist Nathan Wolfe (2011).