COVID-19 harkens back to memories of Spanish flu

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series.


ALLOUEZ — Most of us are sheltering in place. We stay at home, or we venture out with masks and gloves. We stock up on soap and hand sanitizer.

Religious sisters, including three Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity of Manitowoc dressed in white habits, are pictured at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rhinelander during the Spanish flu pandemic. (Submitted Photo | Courtesy of Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity)

But even though this is something no one living today remembers happening before, the COVID-19 pandemic carries echoes of an epidemic that struck the world a century ago. Called “the Spanish flu” — though it had nothing to do with Spain and probably developed in the United States — this H1N1-variant influenza struck 500 million people worldwide in 1918-1920.

It killed an estimated 50 million and 675,000 died in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at least 10,000 Wisconsinites died from the flu between 1918 and 1919.

Perhaps because of our French-Canadian history, Wisconsin tended to call the flu, la grippe, French for “the influenza.”

While Spanish flu was not related to the coronavirus, the state’s 2020 response to the outbreak bears some resemblance to the 1918 response. And that includes religious life.

In a January 1919 letter to her teaching sisters, Mother Euphrosine Ernst, mother superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, spoke about parish schools being closed: “Your school work has been sadly interrupted by the epidemic. This is certainly disheartening to the teachers, but don’t get discouraged; it is not your fault.”

In another example, St. Norbert College in De Pere ended its fall 1918 term early. They sent students home after a city quarantine went into effect on Dec. 12, 1918. In November, one student, Earl Wood, died of the flu.

Spanish flu’s ROOTS

According to the U.S. Army, and the Journal of Translational Medicine, the Spanish flu first appeared in Haskell County, Kan., in spring of 1918. From there it moved, along with Army recruits, to Camp Funston (now Ft. Riley), Kan. The flu in Kansas burned itself out by summer, but, with the troops mobilized for World War I, it had already spread to France. The flu reappeared in the United States in September at Camp Deven, Mass., near Worcester.

According to the book, “The Great War Comes to Wisconsin: Sacrifice, Patriotism and Free Speech in a Time of Crisis,” published by the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Spanish flu was diagnosed in Boston on Sept. 14, 1918. Within two weeks, it had spread to Wisconsin. It moved north from the Chicago area, spreading county by county, much as COVID-19 did this spring.

By Oct. 8, 1918, cases in Oshkosh alone totaled 163. So many died — very quickly — that, on Oct. 10, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reported a shortage of flowers because there were so many funerals.

The City of Oshkosh had seven hospitals at the time, according to the NIH report. Still, in October 1918, Oshkosh rented a house on the north side as an “Emergency Isolation Hospital.” People were taken there by horse-drawn ambulance, rather than the newer motorized ambulances.

Oral histories are rare from Wisconsin. However, the University of Illinois at Springfield has an oral history from a young priest chaplain at St. John Hospital in Springfield in 1918. His experience was shared by the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis there. That Springfield community founded HSHS St. Vincent Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center in Green Bay.

Msgr. Jesse Gatton’s memories of those days of Spanish flu in Springfield sound similar to events in Oshkosh at the time:

“Both hospitals were filled with patients and the city of Springfield set up a temporary hospital out at the fairgrounds. As soon as the patient got any signs of the flu he went to this place. And then when he got very sick, they brought him into the hospital,” Msgr. Gatton wrote. “I remember giving them Extreme Unction on the way up to the room, on the elevator. When they got to the floor they were so sick that many of them died. There were a lot of the Sisters who died. They got the flu.”

Assistance was offered by the archives of the Diocese of Green Bay; archives of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity; St. Norbert Abbey records; and records of the Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS).

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series.
Part 2