Reading My Family Letters From the 1918 Flu Pandemic While We’re All Quarantined.

I was one of the first people I know to find myself quarantined as a result of symptoms of COVID-19. I have been in my apartment since Wednesday March 11, and have watched the world change from my computer screen. It has been a surreal experience to say the least. I have no idea what things look like outside my front door, but watching the news roll in, and seeing the projections of what is coming to our country is unnerving to say the least.

As I am sure has been the experience for all of us at this point, I have been keeping in contact with family via group chats, Facebook, Twitter, and of course my father is scheduling family Zoom meetings. In the midst of it all, I received a Facebook message from my cousin Seth, our family historian. Apparently, during World War I, my great, great uncle Paul was serving in the U.S. Army and was stationed at a hospital in Rouen, France. Among the many family artifacts my cousin has collected over the years were two letters written to Paul in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic.

The first letter was from Lucille, Paul’s sister who was a teacher in Pittsburgh, PA at the time of the pandemic. The second was from Warren, Paul’s brother who happened to be a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh. Their letters are a glimpse into a distant past that doesn’t feel so distant right now. In fact, it feels eerily familiar, particularly to those of us living in cities completely shut down by the coronavirus outbreak. On a personal level, it was an opportunity to connect to the stories of family members I hadn’t known before.

As Lucille describes, “Our school is closed this week on account of the influenza…Teachers are doing all they can to help out. The hospitals are so crowded and many nurses sick.” She goes on to explain that teachers in 1918 were filling in as nurses, working in the hospital kitchens, and with the Red Cross. As someone who currently teaches, I can’t imagine being asked to fill in as a nurse. Really makes you think about the state of women’s work in 1918 that those positions were a) gendered and b) seen as interchangeable. I have so much respect for those ladies. Teachers today are helping out in different ways, transitioning students to online learning platforms, and helping families to do the same.

In many places around the world right now, we’re hearing calls for doctors to come out of retirement. What we learn in Warren’s letter is that they were apparently pulling up their medical students, with Warren working at Allegheny General Hospital. As Warren writes, “They put all of the 2-3-4 yr. medical men in hospitals around here so that’s where I am now…the juniors are doing physical examinations, diagnosis and prescribing, the sophomores are taking history and riding the ambulances, and I am on the surgical service.” It is cool to see him seeking advice from his brother, whom he apparently calls “Frosty.” In part of the letter, he’s checking in on what tests they’re running in the labs in Rouen, wondering if any of them are “bacteriological?” As I write this, I see that New York University’s medical school has begun graduating its medical students three months early if they agree to intern in local hospitals to help fight the coronavirus. And again, history repeats itself.

Further on in her letter, Lucille explains to her brother, “I really don’t have much news for you because we stay at home during the flu. With churches, saloons, and amusements closed, everything is quiet.” Lucille, I am sorry to report that our saloons are closed as well. I only wish you could have experienced the virtual happy hours many of us are having with our friends. It’s not quite the same, but still.

Most importantly in the letter, Lucille goes on to ask her brother, “How do you like this stick of chewing gum?” I was informed on Twitter, that apparently many soldiers received gum in their rations, particularly Wrigley’s. So, you learn something new everyday!

Paul Wolf (middle row, second from left with mustache)

I asked my cousin where Paul, Lucille and Warren ended up after the war. There isn’t much information on Lucille. She kept teaching as far as I know. Paul returned from the war shortly after this letter and became an English teacher. Warren graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and went on to become one of the founders of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Society of Pittsburgh. It’s unclear to what extent their lives were changed in the long term by the pandemic, but as Warren notes, “very likely as soon as the epidemic is over we will return to school and resume the routine work.”

The end of both of their letters touched me, as I think this time of social distancing is leaving many feeling alone, isolated. Warren and Lucille had a simple request for Paul:

Lucille: Write me some time even a card.

Warren: Write if you ever get a chance.

So, as we move into this time of distance, keep in touch with your people. Write letters. Write emails. Call. Schedule family Zoom meetings. Write to your brother to complain about the saloon closure and ask him if he’s enjoying his Wrigley’s.

This essay was originally published at The Mantle.

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