How the 1918 Flu Pandemic changed history, improved women’s rights and saved my life

What do modern public health, the World health Organization, women’s rights, Edward Cullen and myself have in common?

All, in part, owe their very existence to the 1918 flu pandemic.

In the midst of this crisis, there is much talk about what the ‘new normal’ will look like. Will we count down the days until our old normalcy returns or will we adapt to a new life? I have found myself alternately resisting a new existence and planning how I can modify my everyday life to, well, have a life.

It made me wonder how and what changed following the flu pandemic of 1918 and if any of those changes remain today?

Seattle Police in 1918: Source National Archive

Worldwide in the early 20th century there was no real organized healthcare. Most doctors worked for themselves or in hospitals that were funded by religions and charities. Many people had no access to healthcare at all. Public health at the time was warped by the practice of eugenics: “the study of how to arrange reproduction within a human population to increase the occurrence of heritable characteristics regarded as desirable.”

At the time, it was common to believe that workers and the poor were somehow inferior and that inferiority predisposed them to disease. Society’s elite never took into account that the reason for illness may have been due to the poor’s living and working conditions and lack of a proper diet. They merely took steps to stay away from the less privileged among them, as depicted by Jack and Rose of the Titanic movie.

The 1918 flu showed health officials that it was illogical to blame an individual for catching an infectious disease. In the 1920’s many world governments embraced free healthcare for all. The US took a different path with employer-based insurance, but also took steps to make healthcare more available.

Originally known as the Office international d’hygiène publique (OIHP), the World Health Organization was created, in part, as a response to World War I and the 1918 pandemic. Since contagion has no borders, it was internationally recognized there needed to be coordination in public health. In 1920 the League of Nations was formed which oversaw several agencies – one being the Health Organisation, which was a precursor to the modern organization.  

The 1918 flu, coupled with wartime conditions, made the virus disproportionally effect young men. These two factors created a shortage in labor, giving women a new and crucial role in the workforce. They were taking jobs outside the home in never seen before numbers, and by 1920 women made up 21% of all employed people in the United States. Without the 1918 flu women would not have moved into roles traditionally held by men and would have had less economic power. That power led to the founding of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Club, the ratification of the 19th Amendment and eventually the first female Governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming.

Nelly Tayloe Ross

Of less importance, but possibly good for a game of trivia, is this little nugget of pop culture. About the time of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the popular Twilight book series was being released. One of the main characters, Edward Cullen, was dying of the 1918 virus when his adoptive father Carlisle transformed him into a vampire to prevent him from dying.

Lastly, I might not exist if not for the pandemic. In 1918 my grandfather, George Clark, was on his way to France to fight in WWI abroad the USS Von Steuben. Rather than sleep below deck with his fellow soldiers, he made the fortuitous decision to stay outside on the deck for the journey. Apparently “she weathered a severe storm and suffered an outbreak of influenza on board that took nearly three-dozen lives.”

Not only did my grandfather escape the flu, but his unit was so depleted he was dispersed to another unit and never saw combat. Lucky for me!

Melissa’s Grandfather

So, what long term effects will this latest crisis have for us? Studies show that people change in changing times. One study by Luka Lucic, a Pratt Institute psychologist, showed that people who survived the Sarajevo siege had a “super heightened sense of spatial awareness.” This lifelong skill came from evading bullets and bombs while living through the crisis. SARS and MERS increased focus on hygiene, diet and news consumption. Negative experiences with interesting outcomes.

My hope for this latest pandemic is that we come out of it changing our relationship with the animals with which we share the planet. 335 diseases emerged between 1960 and 2004, at least 60% of which came from animals.  Shrinking habitats, along with densely populated human development, add to the risk of diseases making their way from animals to humans. When we disrupt ecosystems, animals, like rats and bats who are common disease vectors, tend to be the hardiest survivors. The more we disturb these habitats, the more often we may find ourselves in this position. Human health research must take into account the effect we are having on habitat and biodiversity. Education on husbandry and hygiene is key for hunters, loggers, farmers, ranchers, market traders and the consumer if we are to make a change. I hope we can make this change before something and more deadly emerges yet again.

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