AN ILL WIND
AS THE SUN sank over a windswept Yorkshire churchyard in September 2008, a battered lead-lined coffin was reburied hours after being opened for the first time in eighty-nine years. The familiar words of the burial service resounded through the twilight as samples of human remains were frozen in liquid nitrogen and transported to a laboratory with the aim of saving millions of lives.1 Medical researchers had exhumed the body of Sir Mark Sykes (1879–1919) in order to identify the devastating ‘Spanish flu’ virus which killed 100 million people in the last year of the First World War. Sir Mark, a British diplomat, had succumbed to Spanish flu during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, dying in his hotel near the Tuileries Gardens. Like many victims of Spanish flu, Sir Mark had been fit and healthy, a man in his prime at just thirty-nine years old.
Sir Mark’s remains had been sealed in a lead-lined coffin, befitting his status as a member of the nobility, and transported to Sledmere House, the Sykes’ family seat in east Yorkshire. Sir Mark was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s church, which adjoined the house. If his body had not been hermetically sealed by a thick layer of lead, his life might have passed quietly into history. But an accident of chemistry meant that the lead dramatically slowed the decay of Sir Mark’s soft tissue, giving scientists investigating the H5N1 ‘bird flu’ virus a unique opportunity to study the behaviour of its predecessor. One theory of the cause of the 1918–19 epidemic was that it originated with an avian virus, H1N1, which is similar to H5N1. Researchers believed Sir Mark’s remains might hold valuable information about how the influenza virus leapt the species barrier from animals to humans.2
In 2011, there were only five useful samples of the H1N1 virus around the world and none from a well-preserved body in a lead-lined coffin. H1N1 had already been sequenced by scientists using frozen remains found in Alaska, but many questions remained about just how the virus killed its victims and the way it had mutated by 1919, when it killed Sir Mark Sykes.3
Professor John Oxford, the eminent virologist who led the team investigating Sir Mark’s remains, told reporters that the baronet ‘died very late in the epidemic, when the virus had almost burnt itself out. We want to get a grip on how the virus worked both when it was at its most virulent and when it was coming to the end of its life. The samples we have taken from Sir Mark have the potential to help us answer some very important questions’.4
After a two-year process of gaining permission from the Diocese of York to carry out the exhumation, involving a special hearing presided over by a High Court judge, Professor Oxford’s team, wearing full bio-hazard kit and accompanied by medical experts, clergy, environmental health officers and Sir Mark Sykes’ descendants, finally exhumed his grave. After a short prayer, the gravestone was removed and the coffin uncovered inside a sealed tent before researchers wearing protective suits and breathing apparatus opened the casket. After so many months of preparation, it was a tense and exciting moment. But the investigation seemed doomed to failure. A crack was discovered in the top of the lead lining, meaning that the chances of finding a pristine sample of the virus were remote. The coffin had split because of the weight of soil over it, and the cadaver was badly decomposed. Nonetheless, the team were able to extract samples of lung and brain tissue through the split, with the coffin remaining in situ in the grave during this process to avoid disturbing the body any further. Although the condition of the cadaver was disappointing, a study of the tissue samples taken from the remains eventually revealed valuable genetic imprints of H1N1 and its condition when Sir Mark died.5
The exhumation of Sir Mark Sykes’ body represented just one attempt to find an explanation for the deadly disease that had devastated the globe during the last year of the Great War. In three successive waves, from spring 1918 to summer 1919, the phenomenon that became known as ‘Spanish flu’ killed an estimated 100 million people worldwide. The disease was not classified as ‘Spanish flu’, or the more fanciful soubriquet ‘Spanish Lady’, immediately. The shape-shifting creature that was Spanish flu was a slippery beast, difficult to define beyond the common characteristics of acute breathing difficulties, haemorrhaging and fever. As it progressed, many doctors and civilians would wonder whether this apocalyptic disease was actually influenza at all.
In terms of national identity, there was nothing inherently Spanish about Spanish flu. At first, in the early months of 1918, the majority of doctors believed they were dealing with nothing more serious than a particularly aggressive outbreak of common or garden influenza. But as the epidemic continued, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain fell victim along with many of his subjects, this virulent strain of influenza was discussed freely in the Spanish press. Debate of this nature was possible as Spain was a neutral country during the First World War. Elsewhere, in Britain and the United States, censorship made such speculation impossible beyond the pages of medical journals such as The Lancet and the British Medical Journal. Under ‘DORA’, or the Defence of the Realm Act, newspapers were not permitted to carry stories that might spread fear or dismay. As the term ‘Spanish flu’ entered the language in June 1918, The Times of London took the opportunity to ridicule the disease as little more than a passing fad. By the autumn of 1918, when the deadly second wave of Spanish flu was hitting populations worldwide, the implications of the disease proved impossible to ignore. The United States recorded 550,000 deaths, five times its total military fatalities in the war, while European deaths totalled over two million. In England and Wales an estimated 200,000, 4.9 per 1,000 of the total population, perished from influenza and its complications, particularly pneumonia.
Today, despite regular health scares about bird flu, SARS, HIV and Ebola, it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which something as common as influenza could cause widespread illness and death. Although most of us will contract influenza several times during our lifetimes, the influenza vaccination being only approximately 50 per cent effective, the majority will survive with a minimum amount of medical attention. What then was so different about Spanish flu and why did it have such a devastating impact?
To gain some understanding of these factors, we need to define the nature of influenza and consider a brief history of the disease. In general terms, influenza is a complex disease caused by an airborne virus which spreads between individuals in microscopic droplets, via coughing or sneezing. Bringing people together in close contact aids the spread of the infection, particularly in overcrowded communities such as schools, military camps and hospitals. In many cases, schoolchildren are the first to catch the virus and then transmit it to their families.6
Although Spanish flu constituted the most deadly mutation of the flu virus, flu itself is nothing new. References to influenza as an affliction date back to classical times, with Hippocrates witnessing an apparent epidemic of influenza in Greece in 412 BC and Livy recording a similar outbreak in his history of ancient Rome.
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THE ACTUAL WORD ‘influenza’ dates from around 1500, when the Italians introduced the term for diseases that they attributed to the ‘influence’ of the stars. Another possible origin was the Italian phrase influenza di freddo, the influence of the cold.7
By the fifteenth century, the illness was referred to in England as a ‘mure’ or ‘murre’; apparently it killed two monks at Canterbury Abbey, while an outbreak of the sudor Anglicus or ‘English sweate’ was recorded after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.8 By 1562, Lord Randolph was writing from Edinburgh to Lord Cecil describing the symptoms experienced by Mary, Queen of Scots. Lord Randolph’s account will be familiar to anyone who has witnessed an outbreak of influenza:
Immediately upon the Quene’s arrival here, she fell acquainted with a new disease that is common in this towne, called here the newe acquaintance, which passed also throughe her whole courte, neither sparinge lordes, ladies nor damoysells not so much as ether Frenche or English. It ys a plague in their heades that have yt, and a soreness in their stomackes, with a great coughe, that remayneth with some longer, with others shorter tyme, as yt findeth apte bodies for the nature of the disease. The queen kept her bed six days. There was appearance of danger, nor manie that die of the disease, excepte some old folkes.9
By the eighteenth-century ‘Age of Enlightenment’, a spirit of scientific enquiry enabled doctors and scientists to keep better records of epidemics and speculate as to the nature of the disease. As doctors came to realize that influenza was spread via infection, rather than being caused by foul air and mists, recording major epidemics became a matter of note. One particularly virulent outbreak in 1743 originated in Italy, and as it spread across Europe the term influenza became generally used and was recorded in the Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1743.10 In London the epidemic trebled the death rate in one week. Horace Walpole, describing its effects in a letter dated 25 March 1743, stated ‘not a family in London has scaped under five or six ill; many people have been forced to hire new labourers. Guernier, the apothecary, took two new apprentices, and yet could not drug all his patients.’11 A generation later saw one of the worst influenza outbreaks in history commemorated by Edward Gray as ‘An Account of the Epidemic Catarrh’ in 1782 at the request of the Society for Promoting Medical Knowledge.12
The first influenza epidemic of the nineteenth century appeared in Paris, and then Britain and Ireland in 1803, by which time some doctors were investigating the process of transmission by social contact and the possible benefits of isolation or quarantine. In 1831, a lethal strain of influenza swept across Europe, with pneumonia a common complication. This epidemic occurred in three waves, the second wave appearing in 1833 and the third in 1837. The final deadly wave claimed 3,000 lives in Dublin alone and was described by one London doctor as one of the ‘more direfurl scourges’.13
In 1847–8, another influenza pandemic claimed an additional 5,000 lives in London over and above a normal influenza season and was compared to cholera. Over a period of six weeks it spread across Britain. Many died of pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma and similar ailments associated with influenza.14
Many of the doctors treating patients during the 1918 epidemic could recall the influenza pandemic of 1889–91, which probably came from southern China but was called Russian flu. Russian flu also hit the United States, with poor European immigrants being blamed for bringing it to the New World by steamship.15 In America, a quarter of a million people died from Russian flu, and it subsequently spread to Japan, Latin America and Asia. Russian flu appeared in Britain four times between 1889 and 1894, killing approximately 100,000 Britons. After 1894, however, there were no further widespread epidemics until Spanish flu was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in 1918.
Although influenza viruses as such were not isolated until the 1930s, medical scientists were already attempting to understand the nature of influenza. The eminent virologist Jeffery Taubenberger, a leading authority on influenza, has offered a lucid explanation of the stage researchers had reached by 1918:
Influenza was not known to be caused by a virus at that point – though the idea that viruses existed was beginning to be accepted by the scientific and medical literature. Virus, of course, just means ‘poison’ in Latin. A virus is nothing but a package of genes inside some proteins. So whether it’s alive or not is kind of debatable. It’s either a kind of a complex chemical or a very simple life form.16
Scientists did, however, understand the nature of bacteriology by 1918 through growing specimens of suspected bacterial material in laboratories and then attempting to strain out the infection matter through a filtration process. ‘They were able to culture and identify and speciate a large number of bacteria,’17 reports Taubenberger. ‘They knew how big they were, and they developed filters that should block the passage of all the bacteria that they knew about.’18
However, the scientists discovered that bacteria was still coming through the filters, despite the filtration process designed to remove it, and the resulting liquid was still infectious. ‘So they had the idea that what was infectious was a chemical, a poison, a “virus”; it wasn’t actually an organism,’19 Taubenberger explained. This was before the invention of electron microscopes, and it was impossible to see a virus through a light microscope, so scientists were unable to understand what a ‘virus’ actually was. It was merely an infectious ‘thing’ that slipped through the filters. ‘Whatever these viruses were, infectious organisms, agents, teeny tiny bacteria or whatever, they were so small that they couldn’t be seen, couldn’t be cultured, couldn’t be filtered. So they didn’t know that influenza was a virus; they thought it was a bacterial disease.’20
Taubenberger has described viruses in anthropomorphic terms as ‘very clever little beasts’.21 ‘Personally I think of viruses as living and sort of my adversaries!’22 he commented in one interview. In the case of the virus that caused Spanish flu, medical scientists were up against a very clever ‘little beast’ indeed.
By January 1918, the world was still in the grip of the Great War, a global conflict on an unprecedented scale that had led to the death of 38 million people. While the war still raged, along came an outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus that would inflict higher casualties than the war itself, from Europe to Africa, from the Pacific to the Arctic, from India to Norway. Ten to 20 per cent of those infected died, a third of the world’s population. As many as 25 million are believed to have perished during the first twenty-five weeks of the epidemic, leading historians to refer to Spanish flu as the greatest medical holocaust in history, killing more than the Black Death. In India, 17 million are estimated to have died, 13.88 million of these in British India. In Africa, 2 per cent of the entire population was wiped out, 100,000 in Ghana alone. In Tanzania, an estimated 10 per cent of the population died, and the epidemic was followed by a famine which killed thousands more. In the United States, the figure was over half a million. Given censorship, lack of accurate records and inaccurate death certificates, the total global mortality may be even higher. According to Professor Oxford, the figures from China, which were low by comparison with data from other parts of the world, have yet to be confirmed, while the circumstances of many servicemen’s deaths were concealed to safeguard morale. But whatever the final tally, there is no doubt that the 1918 influenza outbreak was one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.
In 1918, mass troop movements spread Spanish flu among the military, while ‘bond drives’, aimed at persuading citizens to contribute to the war effort, and victory parades in the United States dispersed influenza among the civilian population. In Philadelphia, one such bond drive was to have devastating consequences and send the mortality rate soaring in the City of Brotherly Love.23 In Britain, Whitehall chiefs were reluctant to introduce quarantine restrictions on buses and trams for fear of damaging morale.24
The end of the war did not bring an end to Spanish flu. As the death rate soared, the joyful crowds gathered to welcome the Armistice in Albert Square, Manchester, unwittingly inviting the Spanish Lady to join them, and the killer virus remained active well into 1919.25
The most terrifying aspect of Spanish flu, in addition to its astonishingly transmissible nature, were its horrifying symptoms. By comparison, in a conventional case of influenza, the victim incubates the virus for at least twenty-four hours and up to four or five days before the disease becomes obvious. The first signs are headache, chills, dry cough, fever, weakness and loss of appetite. Generalized fatigue and, in some, bronchitis and pneumonia ensue. Recovery to full strength following influenza may take several weeks or longer. What can confuse the matter is that although influenza is a distinct and recognizable clinical entity, many patients and some physicians tend to group most respiratory ailments under a blanket term of ‘flu’.26 For most of us a case of flu means little more than a few days off work, paracetamol tablets and hot lemon drinks on the sofa.
But Spanish flu, by contrast, was far more aggressive and fast acting. During the devastating second wave of the epidemic, which began in the summer of 1918, victims collapsed in the streets, haemorrhaging from lungs and nose. Their skin turned dark blue with the characteristic ‘heliotrope cyanosis’ caused by oxygen failure as their lungs filled with pus, and they gasped for breath from ‘air-hunger’, like landed fish. Those who died quickly were the lucky ones. Others suffered projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhoea, and died raving as their brains were starved of oxygen. Those who recovered were often left with a lifetime’s legacy of nervous conditions, heart problems, lethargy and depression. Doctors and nurses worked heroically to care for the sick, often falling ill themselves. Dr Basil Hood, medical superintendent of St Marylebone Infirmary, London, left a devastating account of conditions at his hospital, which he described as ‘the most distressing occurrence of my professional life’.27 On the Western Front, nursing staff had to cope with an endless stream of corpses, dark blue and putrescent within hours of death,28 in addition to treating combat injuries.
On the battlefield, both Allies and Germans sustained massive losses. Out of the 100,000 casualties suffered by the US military, 40,000 troops died from Spanish flu. As troop movements dispersed influenza to every corner of the globe, the Spanish Lady travelled alongside innocent doughboys, from the United States to France. On one such journey, the doomed voyage of the USS Leviathan in September 1918, over ninety-six men succumbed to Spanish flu in hellish conditions while dozens more perished once they disembarked.29
Life on Civvy Street was no better, with entire families struck down in their homes. Children starved to death as their parents lay helpless in their beds; deranged men murdered their children, convinced that their offspring would starve without them. In South Africa, the bodies of dead and dying mine workers were thrown from trains and left along the trackside.30 In New York, 600 children ended up in orphanages. Across the globe, entire cities became ghost towns as daily life ground to a halt. In Washington and Cape Town, undertakers ran out of coffins, while in Philadelphia a shortage of burial space meant the city council resorted to excavating mass graves with steam shovels.31 As the spectre of the Spanish Lady conjured up visions of the Black Death of 1348, the great plague of 1665 and the terrible waves of cholera and typhus that devastated Europe in the 1840s, some speculated that this was not influenza at all, but plague itself, and feared that the human race would be wiped out. As the American epidemiologist Dr Victor C. Vaughan pointed out in 1918, the doctors of the day ‘knew no more about the flu than fourteenth-century Florentines had known about the Black Death’.32
Combatants and civilians on both sides of the divide now discovered that Death was the new enemy. As isolated outbreaks formed into the terrible pattern of a pandemic, the world responded as if at the mercy of some alien invasion; Spanish flu became reminiscent of H. G. Wells’s science fiction classic War of the Worlds.
Another disturbing feature of Spanish flu was the age of the casualties. Normally, it is the very young, the very old and patients with compromised immune systems who are most susceptible to dying of influenza. But the majority of victims in the Spanish flu epidemic were healthy young men and women, wiped out in their prime. Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable, Spanish flu killing both them and new mothers and their babies. In Massachusetts, one midwife helped a young woman deliver her premature baby, only to have both die within hours.33
Between spring 1918 and summer of 1919, the Spanish Lady continued her dance of death, attacking without warning, and seemingly at random. As if in a disaster movie, there was no telling which members of the worldwide cast would live or die. Those who survived included Franklin D. Roosevelt, who arrived in New York after a near fatal voyage on the unlucky USS Leviathan;34 British Prime Minister David Lloyd George also almost lost his life to influenza, a death which would have caused dreadful loss of morale to the Allies;35 it was thought that Mahatma Ghandi wouldn’t survive, and Kaiser Wilhelm suffered alongside his subjects. The great American novelist John Steinbeck recovered, as did the author Mary McCarthy, film star Lillian Gish, and Groucho Marx and Walt Disney. The experience of Spanish flu appears to have had a significant psychological impact; writers in particular noted the changes. It is said that Steinbeck’s perspective was forever changed by the experience,36 while Katherine Anne Porter, author of the Spanish flu memoir Pale Horse, Pale Rider, regarded the disease as an epiphany that altered the direction of her life.37 Thomas Wolfe, one of the greatest American novelists, left a spellbinding and compelling account of his brother’s death from Spanish flu in his most famous novel, Look Homeward, Angel.38
Spanish flu presented the wartime medical profession with its greatest challenge: how to tame the epidemic through cure, control and containment. Given the huge impact of the disease on both sides, much of the research was conducted by the military. While the civil authorities dismissed influenza as a distraction when all thought should be of the war, military doctors in Britain and the United States began to look for a solution based on their existing research into other epidemic diseases such as typhoid and cholera; but their hands were tied. They did not know exactly what they were dealing with. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that influenza is caused by a virus; but in 1918 scientists believed it was a bacterial disease, characterized by the presence of Pfeiffer’s bacillus. Ultimately, the research conducted during these dark, terrifying times would lead to great scientific breakthroughs, such as the recognition that influenza can affect humans, birds and pigs, and the classification of the three subtypes of the influenza virus as type A (Smith, 1933), type B (Francis, 1936) and type C (Taylor, 1950).39 But back in the autumn of 1918, as medical scientists struggled to develop a vaccine with their colleagues dropping dead around them, it must have seemed a desperate race against time.
Apart from the Spanish Lady herself, the most distinctive image of Spanish flu is the mask. While the mask itself provided little protection from the disease, it has become the icon of the epidemic. Generally white and fastened behind the head, the mask graduated from medical staff to the civilian population; in many towns and cities it became an offence to go outside without one. Policemen directed traffic in masks, entire family groups were photographed in their masks, including their cats and dogs; a honeymooning couple in San Francisco shyly confessed to their doctor that they wore their masks and nothing else when making love.40 Surreal and haunting, the photographs of masked figures from this period resemble scenes from a science fiction film.
One of the most contested aspects of the Spanish flu epidemic remains its origins, as researchers and historians continue to debate the causes of the epidemic and indeed the very nature of Spanish flu. While some still argue that Spanish flu originated in the battlefields of France, as a mutation from animal flu,41 others claimed that Spanish flu was not influenza at all but a strain of bubonic plague from China which travelled to the United States and Europe with the Chinese labourers supporting the Allied armies.42 War is a great time of conspiracy theories so it comes as no surprise that many believed the flu to be man-made in origin, with claims being made that it had been distributed by German U-boats on the Eastern seaboard or circulated in Bayer aspirin packs.43 In highly religious communities, Spanish flu was even seen as divine punishment for humanity’s sinful nature in general and in starting a war in particular.44 Many survivors and eyewitnesses speculated that the original cause was the millions of corpses rotting in No Man’s Land, combined with the lingering effects of mustard gas.45 These explanations continue to be discussed to this day.
One aim of Pandemic 1918 was to examine the impact of Spanish flu from the point of view of those who witnessed it, either famous or obscure. To this end, I present the memories of East End schoolgirls, Mayfair debutantes, Boston schoolboys and Italian immigrants. In this book you will find Lady Diana Manners, ‘the most beautiful woman in England’,46 and her fiancé Duff Cooper, overwhelmed with despair on Armistice night;47 the war poet Robert Graves losing his mother-in-law to Spanish flu after a night at the theatre; Vera Brittain of the Volunteer Aid Detachment, and author of Testament of Youth, surviving what seems to have been an early attack of Spanish flu,48 and countless other nurses battling to cope with influenza cases at the Front. Here too are the forgotten heroes, Dr James Niven, Chief Medical Officer of Manchester, whose advice spared the lives of many, but not enough, in his own view; the medical researcher Walter Fletcher, who devoted his life to finding a solution to influenza; and Major Graeme Gibson, the doctor who became a martyr to his own research. But while Spanish flu killed many famous individuals, including the Austrian painter Egon Schiele, the majority of its victims remained unknown and unmourned outside of their immediate families, my own grandparents included. In numerous parts of China, Africa, India and Russia (in the maelstrom of revolution) the lack of accurate records meant that many millions of victims went unrecorded, their stories lost in the horror of the pandemic. For this reason, I have chosen to focus on the personal stories that have been preserved and handed down through family memories, documents, memoirs and the lives of more famous individuals. As the majority of these have been drawn from the British and American experience of Spanish flu, the emphasis of this book is unavoidably Western, although I have attempted to touch upon the impact of Spanish flu in British India, South Africa and New Zealand.
In the last chapters of the book, I explore research into the H1N1 virus carried out by Jeffery Taubenberger, the ill-fated excavation in Norway to extract samples from the bodies of Norwegian miners buried in the Arctic permafrost and the horrifying implications of the 1997 Hong Kong bird flu outbreak during which six people died including two children. I also attempt to take a glimpse into the future and consider the disturbing possibility that the Spanish Lady might stage a return visit, albeit in a different guise.
Finally, I would like to explain just why I have chosen to use the term ‘Spanish Lady’ as a description of the fatal virus that killed over 100 million people during the period 1918–19. As the first wave of Spanish flu broke across Europe in June 1918, cartoons and illustrations appeared depicting the disease as ‘the Spanish Lady’. Spanish flu was personified as a death-headed, skeletal woman in a black flamenco dress, complete with mantilla and fan. The subtext of this gothic creation implied that the ‘Spanish Lady’ was a prostitute, free with her favours, and infecting everybody at the same time. Often parodied in political lampoons, the Spanish Lady became an iconic symbol of the influenza epidemic (the other being the face mask), featuring in countless publications across the globe throughout the epidemic. The Spanish Lady lost none of her power to fascinate decades later, when she lent her name to the title of Richard Collier’s excellent history, The Plague of the Spanish Lady.
When I first came to write about the 1918 influenza pandemic, I rejected the description ‘Spanish Lady’ as an unhelpful concept, little more than a weary misogynistic cliché. But as the months went by, I began to appreciate the Lady for what she was; a fictional creation who enabled the world to make sense of its suffering at some subconscious level. The Lady has her origins in the world of Greek mythology, as an avenging goddess, a Eumenides; there is something of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, about her, too. In Christian iconography, the Spanish Lady is the shadow side of the Madonna, a mater dolorosa, an exterminating angel punishing the world for its destructive acts of war. She is also a classic femme fatale, a woman in black. She is our lady of sorrows, the Spanish Lady, our torment. As a cultural phenomenon, she is impossible to resist. And this is her story.
Copyright © 2018 by Catharine Arnold