Trying to collect a prescription last week, I entered a pharmacy whose counter was heaped with bags of medication awaiting pick up, and whose pharmacists were all frantically busy. The current raging flu season was the reason.
A Central Massachusetts columnist reminded me that, bad as it is, the current flu epidemic is small potatoes compared to the one that struck at the end of WWI. The flu pandemic of 1918-20affected ¼ of the U.S. population, yet the country’s death rate of 675,000 was lower than in many other places. It was the worst pandemic since the Black Plague, to which it bore some resemblance: The symptoms of Spanish Flu (aka Purple Death) were gruesome, it killed very quickly, and it was undiscriminating, affecting young adults as much as—and in some cases more than—the elderly, ill, and small children.
“No figures exist for many parts of the world, but the pandemic is estimated to have infected 50% of the world’s population, 25% suffered a clinical infection and the total mortality was 40–50 million: the often quoted figure of 20 million deaths is palpably too low (Crosby 1976).”
—C.W. Potter, A History of Influenza
The 19th century, though, was by no means flu-free. Several epidemics occurred (IIRC, I killed some characters in the 1826 epidemic), including apandemic in 1830-33 comparable to the 1918 plague, but with a somewhat lower death rate.
Here, as in so many other cases, physicians disagreed about whether or not it was contagious. The Lancet of 1837 insisted it wasn’t.
The preferred treatment, as you might expect, was bloodletting.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.