Selected text from my Grandmother’s diary in which she documented the Spanish Flu of 1918 (as well as family life and the end of World War 1). I have included here selected excerpts about the Spanish Flu, with some comments as an afterword.

Mon. Oct 14. Well, I see I have not written in a whole week but is seems as if I have been very busy. The schools were closed, also theatres etc. on account of the influenza epidemic. The churches held no services yesterday it seemed strange not to hear the church bells ring. I do not recall any Sunday in my life when the churches have not held services.

            Alice and Ernest Holland are somewhat improved. There are not quite so many new cases of influenza. Six nurses up at the Rome Hospital have it.


Fri Nov 1 – I went down to have Dr. Stranahan inoculate me against influenza but he was not in his office so I had to have Dr. R. Morris do it. In five days I will have to have the second injection.

Fri Nov 3 – During the past week, Robert Scott (34) 519 ½ W. Thomas, Irene Brodbeck (14), 509 W Thomas, and Mr. I. Seblowitz, 43, W Thomas died of pneumonia following an attack of that dreadful influenza.

They are inoculating men in the mills against it. So many happy homes have been broken up, we can not understand it, but some day we’ll understand.             Over 4000 deaths occurred in Boston and nearly 400 in Utica

Nov 6 – I had my second inoculation in my left arm today. Dr. Stranahan inoculated me.

Nov 12. Tuesday – Another fair day, crisp and cool, a clear blue sky. Children go to school again after the influenza epidemic. They have missed 22 school days.

Thurs Nov 14 – I had my third and last inoculation.

Sat Dec 28 – Our furniture mahogany bedroom suite and oak dining-room suites we moved up here this afternoon to be stored downstairs in Grandpas’ front room.

           This influenza epidemic is terrible so many good people are being taken from us, it seems now as if it would not be a hard thing to die and go to heaven. So many good people have gone, there’d be a lot of them there that I know. Clara Karlen (Mrs. Clayton Mowry) died last Monday. She is a distant cousin of mine. Alice Meier (Mrs. Stuart Preston) died on Christmas night – I simply can’t believe it. She was always so cheerful & jolly, she was married last September.

Afterward Comments

What is the inoculation she describes in her diary? They lived in Rome, New York at the time such this description may be relevant – note the dates of the inoculations, above, with this:

Those true believers had some reason to be hopeful that a vaccine could prevent influenza as the disease began its second appearance in the United States in early fall 1918. By October 2, 1918, William H. Park, MD, head bacteriologist of the New York City Health Department, was working on a Pfeiffer’s bacteria influenza vaccine. The New York Times reported that Royal S. Copeland, Health Commissioner of New York City, described the vaccine as an influenza preventive and an “application of an old idea to a new disease.” Park was making his vaccine from heat-killed Pfeiffer’s bacilli isolated from ill individuals and testing it on volunteers from Health Department staff (New York Times, October 2, 1918). Three doses were given 48 hours apart. By October 12, he wrote in the New York Medical Journal that he was vaccinating employees from large companies and soldiers in army camps. He hoped to have evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of the vaccine in a few weeks (Park WH, 1918).
Chart showing deaths from influenza in Chicago in the fall of 1918
Number of influenza cases reported to November 2, 1918, in Chicago. AJPH, 1918.

In November, the Newark Evening News reported that 39,000 doses of Leary-Park influenza vaccine had been prepared and that most doses were used. (Timothy Leary was a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.) Though it was too soon to tell if the vaccine was effective, “…the average person need have no fear of the results of the vaccine. Neurotic and rheumatic individuals, however, appear to be sensitive to the vaccine, while children take it with less disturbance than adults” (Newark Evening News, 1918).

Judging from the dates, her “innoculation” sequence would appear to have made her part of a very early group to receive this treatment.

Numerous groups, as described at the source above, were working on developing their own vaccines. Sound familiar?

None of these vaccines worked. Why? Because they thought this “flu” was caused by a bacterial infection. It was, in fact, a virus – something not understood until the 1930s. The vaccines they created were for various bacterial infections, not the virus.

The following comments echo our current situation with regards to drug treatments such as hydroxychloroquine. Many politicians, some doctors, are advocating quick use of HCQ – without waiting for trials.

The Editorial Committee of the American Journal of Public Health tried to put a damper on people’s expectations about the vaccines. They wrote in January 1919 that the causative organism of the current influenza was still unknown, and therefore the vaccines being produced had only a chance at being directed at the right target. They noted that vaccines for secondary infections made some sense, but that all the vaccine being produced must be viewed as experimental. Acknowledging the somewhat ad hoc nature vaccine development in the current crisis, they urged that control groups be used with all the vaccines, and that the differences between control and experimental group be minimized, as to risk of exposure, time of exposure during epidemic, and so on (Editorial Committee of the American Journal of Public Health, 1919).

Certainly none of the vaccines described above prevented viral influenza infection – we know now that influenza is caused by a virus, and none of the vaccines protected against it. But were any of them protective against the bacterial infections that developed secondary to influenza? Vaccinologist Stanley A. Plotkin, MD, thinks they were not.

A surprising take away from the diary comments and the historical record is incredible similarity between 1918 and 2020. In 102 years it appears that very, very little has changed in regards to a pandemic response. And that is not encouraging at all.

Even the cause of the global pandemic was similar – global travel. Soldiers who fought in WW II (officially ended in Nov 2018) were traveling back home and are believed to have spread the Spanish Flu more widely.

The virus did not originate in Spain but was first publicized as being in Spain. The Spanish, in fact, called it the French flu.

By EdwardM

3 thoughts on “From my grandmother’s diary: Spanish flu 1918”
  1. […] Reading histories of the “Spanish Flu” (it did not originate in Spain) is interesting if only because virtually nothing has changed since 1918 in terms of planning or implementing a response to a pandemic. Seriously, what we are doing today is identical to what was done then. There has been no major advances in public health strategy in 102 years. (I have posted excerpts of my grandmother’s diary that she wrote during the pandemic in the fall of 2018.) […]

  2. Fascinating- Enjoyed the Selected text from your Grandmother’s diary. Would be interested in purchasing full diary notes, if it ever was published.

    1. Unfortunately we only have part of the diary – as pages are missing. We would love to know what is in the missing pages!

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