Ever since the uproar surrounding the Andrew Speaker tuberculosis case, I’ve been thinking about how much worse the 1918 pandemic might have been if people then had traveled with the same ease as we do today. Think of all the flights that could have criss-crossed the country, and even the world. Thousands more might have died. Some people, already infected, most likely would have died en route to their destinations.
In her autobiography, the writer Mary McCarthy describes the horrifying experience of traveling by train as a child, when her mother and father were stricken with influenza. The conductor threatened to put the whole family off the train. Later, both parents died of the flu. Ms. McCarthy and her brothers were left in the care of cruel and neglectful relatives, their early childhood marked forever by this tragedy.
The Great War, with its relentless demand for soldiers, also contributed to the contagion. Troop movements across Europe and the U.S. carried the disease from town to town, city to city, and port to port. How many lives might have been spared had it been peacetime?
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, by Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1985.