"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop
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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Pandemics: 1918-1919 / 2019-2020

With the coronavirus in just about every country in the world and covid-19 infecting tens of thousands and killing thousands of people so far, governments and medical authorities across the globe have been using words like “unprecedented” and “uncharted” to describe this pandemic. But this assessment is not true. Some historians and scientists are regarding this crisis in the context of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, a crisis that had immense impact just a century ago. In the Maritimes there is a small but still significant number of centenarians who might have some recollection of this crisis. Certainly, they lived through its aftermath, the major affects it wrought and the changes it triggered;* but for the most part this pandemic has been completely forgotten, except by a few specialists in the humanities and sciences.

As a student of Canadian history, I remember studying this event in undergrad and graduate courses, but the particular work that brought it more fully to my attention was my research and writing on Elizabeth Bishop, who was 7-8 years old when the pandemic raged. She and all her immediate family survived the sickness – no small feat since around 500,000 Canadians and over 679,000 Americans succumbed.** When I looked back to my accounting of this event in Bishop’s life in Lifting Yesterday: Elizabeth Bishop and Nova Scotia, I discovered that I gave it only a passing reference. Here are the few sentences I thought it warranted:

Bishop spent most of 1918 recovering from the serious illnesses of the past winter. In the later part of that year the world, and of course Massachusetts, was hit with a “terrible epidemic of Influenza.” Grace Bulmer, who had been living in New York, working for the Red Cross, returned to Boston at this time to work at the Massachusetts General Hospital and helped nurse Bishop back to health (the Shepherdsons’ apartment had three bedrooms and they often accommodated family and friends from Nova Scotia). It appears that Bishop did not contract the Influenza. Ironically, her illness probably protected her, isolating her from the outside world.***

When the current pandemic really began to register with me, I immediately thought about the 1918-1919 event and started reading a few things online about it. I quickly realized that Bishop’s survival might be seen as miraculous. Bishop had been removed from Nova Scotia in October 1917 by her paternal grandparents and taken to live with them in Worcester. By the winter of 1918 (the winter of her famous poem “In the Waiting Room”), she was seriously ill with what she described in “The Country Mouse” as “eczema, and then asthma,” as well as a host of allergies. By May, the Bishops realized they were not the people to care for her, so she was taken to Revere, MA, to live with her Aunt Maude and Uncle George Shepherdson.

The first wave of the influenza, a relatively mild strain, washed over the US in the summer of 1918 (some historians, such as John Barry, trace its origins to Kansas). The second wave, more like a tsunami, hit in October-November. By this time the virus was spread across the globe and was killing millions. There was a third, less lethal (though still severe) wave in January 1919, after which the virus, having used up so much human fuel, petered out.


(Bishop in 1916, a year before her removal
from Nova Scotia. Photo by J.E. Sponagle.)
Bishop slowly recovered during this same stretch (she was taken back to Nova Scotia in August 1919), but Massachusetts, and Boston especially, were hot spots for the virus. Because World War I was still underway for a good part of the pandemic (ending only on 11 November 1918), government censoring meant the truth about what was happening was suppressed. Indeed, newspapers everywhere except in neutral Spain reported that things were fine and under control, only adding to confusion and distrust as the evidence in front of people was the opposite.

Bishop was cared for by the adults in her family, particularly Maude, but also by Grace. As I mentioned in passing in Lifting Yesterday, Grace was nursing with the Red Cross in New York City. (I remember Phyllis Sutherland telling me that her mother had wanted to go overseas immediately after graduating as a nurse in 1914, but her parents objected, so she and her Great Village friend Una Layton, settled for service with the Red Cross as their war effort.) When Bishop was taken to Maude’s, Grace left New York City and returned to Boston to work at the Massachusetts General Hospital (from where she graduated in 1914), to be nearer Bishop and help with her care. Well, Maude, George and especially Grace would have been exposed to influenza. Yet, they survived and brought Bishop through this terrible pandemic, too.

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*Note: Writer Gerry McAlister published a short piece about the pandemic in New Brunswick in NB Media Co-op on 21 March 2020.

**Note: The estimates of how many died as a result of the influenza – and H1N1 virus -- and corollary diseases range anywhere from 20 to 100 million. It will never be known exactly how many died because of poor recordkeeping in that era. Even so, at the lowest end of the range the death toll was profound and one of the worst, if not the worst, pandemic in human history, rivalling or surpassing the Black Death in Europe in the Middle Ages.

***Note: One of my objections to Thomas Travisano’s characterizations of Bishop’s early childhood in Love Unknown: The Worlds and Life of Elizabeth Bishop (2019) is his repeated assertion that it was isolated – the word he uses most often to describe it in general. His implication is that she was essentially alone, bereft and confined until the age of 13 or 14. Bishop’s childhood was highly complex, not only one unrelenting state. However, during her illness in 1918-1919, she was probably more or less confined in her aunt’s home. And thank goodness for that because, in all likelihood, it helped to save her life.

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