June 4, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 68°F


Ithaca History Center opens exhibit about 1900’s Spanish flu epidemic

The year was 1918. Like thousands of others at the time, Nellie H., 12, lay on a davenport sofa suffering from a fever and fierce headache. She remembers the “cursory glance” of the doctor. Downstairs, her father was dying of double pneumonia, the common deadly turn from grippe, or the Spanish influenza. Her two brothers and mother were also ill, along with their neighbor.

The Spanish flu epidemic lasted from 1918 to 1920 and killed more than 50 million people worldwide. In Tompkins County, which had a population of about 35,000, hundreds were affected. The girl’s story is one of many being featured in “Grippe: The Epidemic of 1918” until December at The History Center in Ithaca. Curator Catherine Duffy has been researching the Spanish flu for months, through Ithaca Journal articles and other materials from the time, and putting a face to one of history’s deadliest epidemics.

“Everyone was affected by the flu,” Duffy said. “No one was safe from this at all.”

Typically, the seasonal flu is most likely to affect children and the elderly who have weaker immune systems. This was not the case for the more recent H1N1 flu, which affected people in the “healthy adult” age bracket, most between the ages of 18 and 64. The Spanish flu was a similar story.

Ben Dalziel, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, worked with Duffy to map out who was most affected by the epidemic at the time. Using mostly obituaries from The Ithaca Journal, he and Duffy found that males between the ages of 20 and 40 were hit hardest. They also found that many infected worked at Cornell.

“Catherine was able to totally reconstruct an epidemic just based on historical research,” Dalziel said. “It’s the most detailed data set for the spread of a disease in the city that I think I’ve ever seen, and it was just done by one person in a couple months.”

Cornell and Ithaca College, which was still a music conservatory at the time, were also heavily affected by the epidemic.

In 1917, the first president of the college, William Grant Egbert, along with his second wife, Mabel, opened their home to students suffering from the flu and turned it into a makeshift infirmary, according to John Harcourt’s 1983 history of the college, “The Ithaca College Story.” A year later, in 1918, Mabel was working “ceaselessly day and night” caring for victims of the flu, but eventually she also became stricken by the illness and died Nov. 2. Duffy said two women from the conservatory died while at the infirmary. It is not known if Egbert got the flu, but he was said to have suffered from “exhaustion and ill health” at the time of Mabel’s death.

“Grippe: The Epidemic of 1918” is designed to tell the story of the people who were affected, rather than just give the statistics, Duffy said.

“It seems like it was a very long time ago, and it’s hard to relate to someone that you don’t know who lived a long time ago,” Duffy said. “But, if you understand who they were and what they did, you see a picture of them, it’s a lot easier to realize they were a person, just like me, and got sick and died.”

The exhibit, which will be completed in about a week, is filled with stories and newspaper clippings of people who were affected. One case features pictures of Cornell students who died either from the flu or in World War I. Others are filled with medical supplies used at the time, such as a metal compress, homeopathic medicine bottles, elixirs and an old inhaler.

The 12-year old girl’s letter will also be there. Her family, including her father, eventually survived, but many did not. In some cases, entire families were wiped out. In Tompkins County, there were more than 100 deaths from the Spanish flu reported, Duffy said. The strain of the flu was so powerful that it generally turned into pneumonia.

“At a certain point in the time frame it became so powerful it was called the three-day fever,” Duffy said. “So you got sick on day one, and you were dead by day three.”

After graphing out the data, Duffy and Dalziel found that the largest number of cases were in October and November. According to an Ithaca Journal article, as of Oct. 18, 1918, there were about 600 cases of Spanish flu. The hospitals were full, as were Cornell’s infirmary, Sage Hall, Cascadilla Hall and the Masonic Hall. While the Red Cross put out an appeal for more nurses, the board of health kept schools open, saying, “Every teacher has been instructed to watch the pupils in her room closely and to send home any child that shows signs of illness.”

Duffy said the county, like the rest of the country, was unprepared to deal with the illness.

“There just wasn’t enough room for all these sick people, and then add to that the fact that it’s World War I, and a lot of medical professionals had enlisted overseas or serving a greater cause,” she said.

Even after the flu passed, it left lasting effects on the victims. Nellie suffered from ear infections and frequent sickness after. She also suffered long-term ear damage and was told “total deafness was inevitable.” She did recover, however, and never became deaf.

Senior Corinne Swanson, an intern at The History Center, has been researching victims of the flu using newspaper clippings and trying to piece together their lives before they were infected.

One story that jumps out from the time, Swanson said, is of a family with three children under the age of five who all died within a month except for the husband. It’s the human aspect that makes the exhibit interesting, she said.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” Swanson said. “We’re covering a lot of different aspects, so we have the human element where we go through the stories, but then we’re also going to talk about the war and SATC, which is kind of the equivalent of ROTC. We also have a huge medicine exhibit talking about how epidemics work and how we deal with them today.”

Tompkins County had no plan in place to deal with an epidemic, but New York City did have a public health infrastructure. The state health commissioner at the time, Hermann Biggs, increased surveillance capacities, initiated large-scale health campaigns and regulated public spaces to help decrease the chance of infection and spreading illness.

These days, some institutions are better prepared to deal with sudden outbreaks. In 2009, the college’s Core Emergency Response Team developed a Pandemic Flu Plan after the scare of the bird flu, and broadened it to include pandemics after the H1N1 outbreak, Dave Maley, associate director of media relations, said. It includes steps the college will take in the event of another pandemic and also refers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic interval chart, which places flu types into five categories based on fatality ratio and projected deaths. The seasonal flu is in category one, while the Spanish flu is in category five.

With recent scares from H1N1 and the bird flu, Duffy said, visitors to the exhibit should think about what would happen in the event of another epidemic, and realize that people are more susceptible than they think.

“It’s important to tell the the story, but it’s important for visitors to The History Center who come to see this to just sort of think about how this would affect their lives today,” Duffy said.

“Grippe: The Epidemic of 1918” will be on exhibit from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. until December at The History Center.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the letter by the 12-year-old girl, Nellie H., was Carol Kammen, however Kammen donated the letter and was not the subject.