Henry, Ernest, Elsie and Lucy Cox c. 1912

A Look Back Paves a Path Forward
April 16, 2020 by Amy Patterson

Lessons from 1918 Pandemic Prove We Can Conquer COVID

Oct. 7, 1918, was cloudy and cool in Wilmington, Ohio. Like most days, my great-great-grandmother, Lucy Cox, had chores to do.

Oct. 7, 1918, was cloudy and cool in Wilmington, Ohio. Like most days, my great-great-grandmother, Lucy Cox, had chores to do.

In her simple farm diary, more a record for bookkeeping than feelings, Lucy noted she patched sacks, her 12-year-old son, Ernest, drove the corn binder and two farmhands spent the day shucking corn. But everything was not normal that day.

“No school on account of Spanish Influenza,” she wrote.

While a global pandemic shuttering schools and businesses feels like new territory, many of our families still bear the scars of the 1918 influenza pandemic. That year, a new strain of the flu spread rapidly around a world at war, ultimately infecting about 500 million people — one-third of the world’s population — and killing at least 50 million worldwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC estimates in 1918, the flu killed an estimated 195,000 Americans during the month of October alone.

Lucy Vandervort Cox, born in 1879, was the oldest of eight Vandervorts and raised my great-grandmother, Elsie, her niece, as her own daughter. My mother’s earliest memories include visits to her great-grandma and great-grandpa, Henry Cox, down a grassy road out in the middle of southwest-Ohio farm country.

On Oct. 13, her diary entry began with a note that a local woman was taken to Adams County and buried.

“Leslie Dixon’s wife died and left 10 children,” the diary continued. “Eight graves dug at Wilmington.”

And on that Monday, Lucy went to a neighbor’s home, where their 23-year-old son, George, was ill.

“I went to Collingham’s a while,” she wrote. “George died about four o’clock in the morning. Ed Stephens buried. Mr. and Mrs. Myers and 10-year-old daughter all buried at once.”

Lucy’s husband and brother stayed and sat up with the Collinghams, whose 21-year-old son, Pvt. Mainard Collingham, had died a week earlier from pneumonia — possibly the flu — at Camp Taylor in Kentucky.

This rural stick-togetherness gave comfort to the suffering, but it also helps explain the reason so many were becoming sick and dying. Families like the Coxes would descend on the home of a person infected with the flu, and when they died, would help wash and prepare the body, and gather once again for a large funeral.

As the pandemic spread, these continued public gatherings became a recipe for disaster.

But, between the deaths and funerals adding up on Lucy’s ledger, she also recorded signs of everyday life — visits to town, minor injuries to the children and several weddings — in a sign that life was still moving forward, even in the midst of a world at war.

A World at War

Somehow, Lucy and her children managed to survive the outbreak — but it wasn’t the only danger to the family.

The 1918 flu pandemic took on the name “Spanish Flu,” perhaps because the Spanish government was the first to acknowledge it was killing thousands in their military. This particular strain of flu was especially deadly for those ages 20-40, according to the CDC, and with no vaccine or antibiotics to treat the pneumonia caused by the flu, it raged through army encampments.

Lucy’s younger brother, Nicholas Vandervort, nicknamed “Bun,” was in his mid-20s when he left for Camp Sherman in nearby Chillicothe, Ohio, to join the 11th Infantry Company I.

He shipped out to France in late April and in September, was recovering from a wound received in action during the battle of Saint-Mihiel.

The camp he departed — to which the Vandervorts sold hogs to feed hungry soldiers — suffered greatly from the flu, with a “Columbus Evening Dispatch” article announcing on Oct. 11 the need for more nurses to tend to sick and dying soldiers.

“Eighty-one soldiers died at Camp Sherman during the 24-hour period, which ended at 6 o’clock Thursday evening, bringing the total of deaths so far up to 788,” the “Dispatch” announced.

According to the U.S. Army, by the end of the war, American combat deaths in World War I totaled 53,402. But about 45,000 American soldiers died of influenza and related pneumonia by the end of 1918.

Although Bun recovered from his wounds, he was sent back to the front, to fight in what would be the second-deadliest battle in U.S. military history — the Meuse–Argonne Allied offensive.

Lucy and her family received a telegram Nov 6., five days before the end of combat on Armistice Day. Bun was wounded again, this time critically.

Lessons Learned

As the influenza unfolded, the public faced fears similar to those we now face, and was asked to change their behavior to mitigate the spread of influenza.

There were no ventilators or intensive care hospital beds available for victims in 1918, meaning public health efforts mainly focused on controlling behaviors that could spread the disease.

Cleveland Police Chief Frank Smith issued summary orders Oct. 5, 1918, to arrest anyone caught spitting.

“In view of the present situation, every member of the police department must understand that it is just

as important to arrest and prosecute people who spit on streets, sidewalks and street cars as it is to apprehend burglars and thieves,” Smith was quoted as saying in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer.”

An Oct. 14 “Cincinnati Commercial Tribune” story said 50,000 cases of the flu had been reported to the Ohio Board of Health, but listed Geauga County among 11 counties yet to report a case.

Three cities — including Wilmington — appealed to the state board of health for outside medical aid, but the department had “no medical men available,” the story continued.

Philadelphia was hit hard, eventually having to bury flu victims in donated packing crates when coffins ran short. Chicago’s theaters, movie houses and night schools were ordered closed and public gatherings were prohibited. San Francisco’s board of health ordered any person serving the public to wear facemasks, and strongly recommended the same precaution to residents.

Like today, as states band together to purchase medical equipment and work with the federal government to provide economic stimulus, the state worked with the federal government on a response. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue explored ways to coordinate medical assistance from states not yet crippled by the flu.

The Ohio legislature acted in 1919 to move public health departments to the city and county level, eliminating a patchwork of over 2,000 individual departments across the state and increasing the medical expertise at each public health department. Geauga’s Public Health Board first met on Jan. 7, 1920. Its budget was set at $4,400 — which amounts to just over $55,000 today.

It was also 1920 by the time Bun recovered. After spending time at Fort Sheridan in Illinois, where injured soldiers learned to re-enter society, he came home on leave that summer for his father’s funeral.

“Clear and hot,” Lucy wrote on June 25, still tracking the weather for planting. “Bun came home on ten o’clock train, hadn’t walked for 103 days.”

For a moment, the worst had passed for the Vandervorts, and for the world.