Monday, October 20, 2014

Our Ancestors and Contagion Scares

Ebola is all over the news. People are uncertain, anxious and downright scared. Just imagine what it would have been like for our ancestors almost 100 years ago when the Spanish Influenza hit the world in 1918. Millions of people were infected. Hospitals became completely full, and public areas like schools and churches closed. Masks were distributed, and victims isolated. Everyone must have been extremely frightened.

My great-grandmother Alberta, known as "Albertina" by family, died of influenza in Pittsburgh on November 25, 1918. She was only 36 years old. Albertina left behind her husband and three children aged 12, 10, and 6. (Two other children had died as infants more than a decade earlier.)

As with many families, her death had a lasting impact on her children. Unable to care for them while he worked as a policeman, and I'm sure dealing with grief, my great-grandfather sent his children to live with his sister. She was 15 years older than their mother and already had 2 stepsons in the house, so I'm sure it was difficult time for everyone. Sadly, I've heard family stories that this aunt was not kind to them.

Albertina's death certificate indicates that the doctor started treating her on November 3. The length of her illness was different than some other victims. Many died within a couple of days, or just a few hours, of showing symptoms.

Millions of people died from this strain of flu, so the fear within families, neighborhoods, and entire cities and countries would have been rampant. Although the world has advanced during the last 100 years, that same type of fear is being seen with Ebola.

They say history often repeats itself, but they also say we can (and should) learn from it.


  1. What does her death certificate give as cause of death? My great grandfather, who lived in Homewood, actually died of lobar pneumonia. According to my grandma, he had had the flu, felt better, and insisted on going back to work. His coworkers brought him home later that day with an apparent relapse which turned out to be the pneumonia. He died on December 3, 1918. As a result, my grandma had to quit school at age 14 to help support the family - her mother and four siblings between the age of 1 and 11.

    1. That is so sad. I can't even imagine what that must have been like for your grandmother. Your comment about pneumonia is very interesting. My great-grandmother's death certificate says she died of influenza with a secondary cause of death of lobar pneumonia.


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