Influenza ward, Walter Reed Hospital, Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, public domain.
As we take precautions to stay well and protect ourselves against Covid-19, we can draw inspiration from our ancestors and their experience with the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919.
According to the CDC:
“While the 1918 H1N1 virus has been synthesized and evaluated, the properties that made it so devastating [in 1918-1919] are not well understood. With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with influenza infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.”
To give a personal perspective of how the Genetti family of Hazleton, Pennsylvania survived, I dug into Stanley Genetti’s memoir to find this:
Stanley Genetti: I drove around Hazleton delivering meat until 1917. When World War I broke out my brother Gus was drafted into the army. When Gus left, I and my sister had to manage the family’s main store.
It was during this time that the flu epidemic hit Hazleton. It was terrible! Entire families became sick at once. The hospitals were filled to capacity. Churches and auditoriums were pressed into service as emergency hospitals. People often died of the high fever within 24 hours after contracting the disease. So many people died that they could not be buried promptly. At one time Saint Gabriel’s Cemetery had to store between 200 and 250 unburied bodies in rough boxes until enough people recovered from the sickness to bury them.
The flue epidemic almost closed the town down. For a period of time there was no school or church services. Everyone stayed at home either tending the sick or trying to escape the epidemic. Some tried drinking whiskey and eating garlic as preventive measures. Others sniffed camphorated oil. But such home remedies offered little real protection.
The Genetti family was not immune from the flue. My oldest brother [Leon Genetti] and his entire family suffered from the illness. My mother [Oliva Genetti], my oldest sister [Dora Genetti Bott] and her entire family, with the exception of the baby, [probably Agnes Mary Bott Yorke] also contracted the disease.
It was very trying for our family. We not only had to take care of our own sick; we had to meet a great demand for deliveries. People could not leave their homes because of the flu and we filled their orders. Indeed, we were so busy that we had little opportunity to shop for ourselves. One afternoon I felt weak and complained to my mother that I thought I was coming down with the flue. She promptly made me go to bed. But after sleeping fifteen hours, I awoke feeling fine. I had suffered from exhaustion, not the flu.
I am so glad that Stanley Genetti penned his memories about the 1918 pandemic. It offers a glimpse into how our family survived that terrible time in our ancestral history. As mentioned in Stanley’s account, my grandparents, Leon Genetti and Angeline Marchetti Genetti, were two survivors of the pandemic. How thankful I am that they persevered as my father would not have been born in 1932 if Leon and Angeline had fallen victim to the virus. And I would not be here today to tell you this story!
Let’s keep in mind our responsibility to family and community by adhering to recommended social distancing, staying home as much as possible, etc. You never know what life you will save or how it will impact future generations.
The person you save may live a hundred years from now, someone who will carry on your legacy by telling your story.
Autobiography of Stanley Genetti
CDC 1918 Pandemic
National Geographic – How some cities “flattened the curve” during the 1918 flu pandemic
Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre) – Spanish Flu was a devastating pandemic