Research Notes – The Great War (21) The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Reworked and edited from an earlier post:

In researching for my story Here Lies a Soldier, I needed to educate myself on The Spanish Flu Epidemic: the plague that killed some 50 million people worldwide in 1918, more than 10 times the number killed by The Great War. I found an excellent book about the flu:  Living With Enza -The Forgotten Story Of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic Of 1918. The author, Mark Honigsbaum, has compiled and sifted through a huge amount of data to write this book. Here are some of the things I found interesting and frankly, horrifying.

Some facts about influenza:

Influenza viruses spread aerially, usually in small droplets expelled when someone coughs or sneezes, and tend to be more stable in cool dry conditions. Researchers have also discovered that at around 5 degrees C (41 degrees Fahrenheit) the virus transmits for about 2 days longer than at 20 degrees. A popular (and morbid) children’s rhyme of the time may actually be spot on. It goes like this:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flu-enza

The Spanish Flu in particular:

The Spanish Flu was so virulent because of its genetic makeup. There are 3 types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. The B type produces classic winter flu while the C type rarely causes disease in humans. The A type, however, is the one responsible for the great pandemics of history. Because viruses are not cells, they do not have DNA to organize their replication. Rather, they use 8 delicate strands of RNA which codes for proteins and enzymes on the surface of the virus. Trouble arises during replication because the RNA cannot copy perfectly. Errors called ‘antigenic drift’ occur when the avian or swine strain of the virus is exchanging genes with the human host.  The result is a new subtype of the virus. Then once inside the new host, the 8 strands of RNA randomly shuffle, generating an entirely new virus for which the human immune system has no antibodies. With no defense, the virus can spread like a wild-fire.

The rate of mortality fell disproportionally on young adults, usually the least vulnerable of a population. The 1918 flu struck suddenly and without warning. One moment a person was up and about, the next day they would be lying incapacitated, coughing up greenish-yellow sputum. The final stage came when their lungs filled with fluid, prompting the heart to leach oxygen from the head and feet, resulting in a dark purple staining across the lips and cheeks of the victim.

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Courtesy Philly Voice

Possible contributing factors:

The effects of gas attacks during the war.  Gasses like phosgene and chlorine were not only capable of disabling and killing on contact, they also acted as soil contaminants denying valuable ground to the enemy. In all, it is estimated that some 150,000 tons of poison gasses – the equivalent of a modern day supertanker – were dumped on the killing fields of Flanders and Northern France during the last 2 years of the war, saturating the soil to the point where it became impossible for attacking troops to hold territory without large numbers of men having to retreat to field hospitals with suppurating blisters, damaged lungs, and eyes.

The most mutagenic of all gasses – mustard gas – 12,000 tons of which was dumped on the Western Front in 1917, accounted for 400,000 casualties. According to John Oxford, Professor of virology at Queen Mary’s Medical School of London and military historian Douglas Gill: these agents may have prompted ‘stepwise mutational changes’ in the influenza virus. And in combination with the bitterly cold conditions that prevailed at the Western Front in the winter of 1917, and the stresses and strains of war, it is possible such contaminants would have lowered men’s resistance to the flu.

Though this particular strain of flu was traced to a United States Army barracks in Kansas (for more on that see Patient Zero: The Spanish Flu) it quickly spread all over North America and Europe. Some of it’s famous victims included: American President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, German Kaiser Wilhelm II, Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, the future Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, artist Edvard Munch, and celebrities Walt Disney, Lilian Gish, and Mary Pickford.

Header Image: courtesy health dot.am

Research Notes – The Great War (19) Isaac Rosenberg, War Poet

Isaac Rosenberg was one of six children born to Russian Jewish immigrants in London in November of 1890. He is known as an English poet, a Jewish poet, a war poet and a poet-painter. His career was cut short by The Great War and his body of work is thus thin. Many scholars believe the work he left behind was flawed but showed great promise had he been able to continue. Rosenberg fought in the war and was killed on April 1, 1918 in the Battle of Arras. His final poems written during his time in the fields of France have shown the potential for greatness which he was never able to fully realize.

“The tragedy of war gave [his] affinities full expression in his later poems, and as war became the universe of his poetry, the power of his Jewish roots and the classical themes became the sources of his moral vision as well as his poetic achievement.” – Thomas Staley, Dictionary of Literary Biography. Here is his poem: Break of Day In the Trenches:

Break Of Day In the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away–
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand–
A queer sardonic rat–
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German–
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver– what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and we are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with dust.

Header image: Self portrait 1915, Isaac Rosenberg

Inhuman (9)

To read from the beginning: parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight.

Nathan smiled. “Good, thank you,” he whispered. Then louder he said, “Amanda, I promise you will be well cared for, your job will be interesting and fulfilling and best of all, you will be doing a service to your country. Of course, we understand this is a lot to digest all at once. You don’t have to agree to all of this right away. Take some time. Unfortunately, while you’re thinking it over, you’ll have to remain here.”

“I can’t just drop out of sight,” she protested. “I have work, what if one of my friends calls… or my mom or sisters? And where is my phone anyway?”

“Your phone and your handbag are safe. We will give you access to your phone, with obvious limitations. You will be allowed to call in sick to work. Tell them you have the flu —something that will keep you away for a few days. As for friends and family, you can tell them the same thing, unless of course, they would be inclined to come and help.”

Amanda smirked. “No, as long as they thought Brian was around to care for me, they’d keep their distance.”

“Good. Then it’s settled. The flu it is. We can provide a doctor’s authorization, if you need one. It will give you a few days to come to terms with the situation. And for us to give you a more thorough explanation of what we do here. Are we agreed, then?”

Amanda shivered involuntarily. If she wanted to stay alive, give herself a chance to get out of this mess, she had to play along. She wondered again whether she could really trust Nathan. The doctor seemed to trust him, at least. The idea of having to put her faith in the creator of super intelligent androids and a government agent, both of whom she’d known for less than a span of a day was absolutely ridiculous, but at this point, she saw no other way forward. For the moment, or until some other option presented itself, she would agree. Slowly, she nodded. “I guess that is my only choice, isn’t it? Very well, I will agree. At least until I have a better understanding of what this agency is involved in.”

Nathan breathed a sigh of relief. “Excellent.” Then he addressed Dr. Knight. “Now the question remains, Leo, will you tell us what we need to know so that we can bring the other AI’s in? For their own good, Leo. For their own good.”

The doctor rubbed his hands over his face. “Is there no way to allow them to live? If I agree to build and program new androids with a modified military program, one less human, is there any way to save the remaining two?”

“I don’t know, Leo, but I doubt it. The director isn’t going to like the idea of a pair of androids assimilating into society. The risk of discovery would still be too great, even if you managed to fix the glitch in the sleep cycle.”

“What if the AI’s knew that they weren’t human?” he suggested. “They could at least take precautions then.”

“It might be too late for that,” Nathan said. “I’m sure by now they’ve formed friendships, maybe even fallen in love and married, like Brian did. That would mean they’d either have to abandon those people or those people would have to be taken into our confidence the way we’re doing with Amanda. Do you really think the director is going to widen the circle of people who know the truth?”

Dr. Knight sighed heavily. “No, I suppose not. But could we at least find out? See what their lives have become before we rip them away from them?”

“Does that mean you agree to help us find them?”

“On that one condition, Nathan. That we be allowed to see what kind of lives they’ve made for themselves and if it is at all possible, we try to preserve that life for them. In return, I will start working on new androids with an altered program for military use. Tell the director he will get his weapons.”