1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

Original Airdate: June 21 (2011)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.

When the Great War came to an end in late 1918, a cloud hung over the jubilation; the world was suffering the worst pandemic in history. From 1918 to 1919, the Spanish Flu killed more people than the fighting did in World War I and infected more than a quarter of all Americans.

Educator Wilma Buntin describes the flu striking her family in the Houston area:

"And I remember my older brother Louis was the only one who didn't get sick. So he'd try to fix something for us for breakfast, or he'd tried to fix something for supper. None of us were interested whatsoever. They didn't have a doctor there, so you just had to do what you thought you could. And they knew to drink fruit juices and rest. Then he'd cry when he'd fix something. He said, ‘It's because I can't do a good job of cooking you all are not eating.' And he didn't—(laughter)."

In a 1987 interview, Louie Mayberry recalls how the virus changed everyday life for children:

"When we moved to San Antonio I started to school. I hadn't gone to school but a few days, they had a—a flu epidemic in San Antonio and they turned the schools out. And we stayed out for quite a while. And they was trying to teach me how to work. They let me shine shoes at the I&GN [International-Great Northern Railroad] station in those days; it's Missouri Pacific [Railroad] now. And then school started again, and it went on for a couple of weeks, and they turned out again. We didn't get much schooling before Christmas."

Bible translator Robert Bratcher, who was born in Brazil in 1920, tells how the illness affected travel:

"My parents and my older brother, who was at that time four years old, had gone to Brazil in 1919. They had been appointed by the Foreign Mission Board and were due to go in 1918, but the great flu epidemic was at that time, and it held them up. They stayed in Valhalla, New York, with some other missionaries waiting till the ships, you know, were available that had sailors that could man them to take them to Brazil."

Folklorist Martha Emmons remembers escaping the flu:

"I have often thought that the Lord in His providence kept me from having the flu. I used to give a more earthy explanation than that. People asked me how I avoided it because, oh, people just dropped dead all around from that. But I was so needed, I thought. See, I had my father with me, and I was teaching at Maypearl, Texas, and I remember when I was asked that I said, ‘Oh, well, all I can attribute it to is eating onions and staying happy.' (laughter) And I did eat onions and anything else that way that I thought was the right kind of thing. And I did make an effort to stay happy. But I've often just thought it must have been a providential stroke because I don't know what could have happened if I had had to have the flu right there with my father an invalid and with me, and we were in that little apartment there. And it would have been awful for him to have taken the flu from me, don't you see?"

The nationalism and acceptance of government authority heightened by the war allowed public health workers to easily put in place restrictive measures to bring the epidemic under control. The Spanish flu outbreak then faded from public memory, until flu scares in recent decades.

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