Weekly Genealogist survey on April 9 asked readers about heroic ancestors. (The question was a follow up to a previous one on black sheep ancestors.) We received a number of written responses to the question, some of which were published on April 16. NEHGS genealogist Marie Daly wrote a story about her grandmother's heroism during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, which we are featuring today.
Many accolades have deservedly gone to first-responders who risked their lives by running toward catastrophic danger to rescue the injured, the stranded, and the lost. But there have also been many other unsung heroes among us--doctors, nurses, clergy, and ordinary men and women--who knowingly exposed themselves to virulent disease to care for the sick and dying. My grandmother was among these heroes.
In 1918, a newly mutated and virulent influenza strain killed twenty to forty million people worldwide. Approximately 675,000 Americans died from the flu, ten times more than were killed in World War I. Boston was the first city in the country to be affected, and it suffered the most losses. The contagion first appeared among returning sailors and spread rapidly. Located next to Boston, densely populated Cambridge, with a large percentage of immigrants, was overwhelmed. My mother, then a child in Cambridge, recalled the wail of ambulance sirens day and night.
Exhausted doctors worked around the clock, but medical care was mainly palliative. Although temporary hospitals were established, most afflicted people could not get into hospitals and lay morbidly ill at home, cared for by family members. Typically, a patient would come down with chills and fever on the first day. By the next day, the blue-tinged victim would be gasping for breath. By the third day, the patient would be dead, asphyxiated by the massive amounts of fluid in his or her lungs. The flu killed 2.5% of people who contracted the disease, a case mortality rate much higher than in previous outbreaks.
The epidemic peaked in September and October, and by November, Cambridge had reopened schools and theaters, and people began taking public transportation and attending church services again. In December, a rebound epidemic occurred. My grandmother, Mary Ellen (Steele) Kelly, was 38 years old, and lived in a triple-decker with her husband, a Cambridge police officer, and her two daughters, ages eight and three years. Her neighbor contracted influenza and lay dying and alone. By December, people knew how dangerous the infection was, and other neighbors refused to help the woman. My grandmother voluntarily stepped forward to care for the dying neighbor. She knew all too well that she was risking her life to help the woman. The neighbor soon died, and, within a day, my grandmother, Mary Ellen (Steele) Kelly, contracted the flu; she died three days later.
We have medals to acclaim the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers and first responders. We have only our memories of our unrecognized heroes who demonstrated similar virtues in the face of more insidious peril. We should hold these heroes in our hearts and record their courageous deeds for posterity.
For more information:The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia
offers a searchable archive of more than 16,000 photographs and documents, and accounts of the epidemic in fifty American cities.The Great Pandemic: The United States in 1918-1919
includes documents, illustrations, and an account of the situation in each state.
The Influenza Pandemic of 1918
provides a brief overview of the epidemic, with links to additional information.
The Pandemic Influenza Storybook
contains personal recollections submitted by survivors, and their families and friends.