In 1918 my grandmother, Frances Shepard (Corbusier) O’Brien was a 14-year-old living with her family in Plainfield, New Jersey who kept a daily diary. Among the topics she discussed that year was the Influenza epidemic that killed thousands in New Jersey. Such personal historical sources give us insight into the worries and options available to citizens then and now.
Her first mention of the Influenza came on Thursday, October 3:
"An awful epidemic is going on called the Spanish Influenza usually followed by pneumonia. They say the Germans brought it to us on purpose. But you can’t tell. It is a terrible thing. You have chills & fever & ache all over.”
Though she seemed rather skeptical about the true origin of the virus, with her underlining of the ambiguous “They,” like today rumor and conflicting information made it difficult for citizens to understand the situation accurately. The United States was at war against Germany in 1918 and chemical weapons were a primary armament, making the threat of biological warfare believable. But blaming a foreign adversary deflected from the true nature of the threat.
The next evening, October 4, the war came home when the T. A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant in the Morgan area of Sayreville, N.J. exploded in a “terrific bang” that rattled houses in Plainfield and beyond. At least twelve more explosions shook the region over the next couple of days. Around 100 people died in the armaments factory and the surrounding area, with thousands more displaced. Plainfield did what it could, taking in wounded at the local hospital and fitting up a house for evacuated Influenza sufferers.
With a father, Harold Dunbar Corbusier, serving as a doctor in the U.S. Army treating 1,800 Influenza patients at Ft. Meade in Maryland and a mother, Louise Shepard Corbusier, active in the local Red Cross and the 4th Liberty Loan Drive to support the war effort, Frances felt the pressures and pride of her family working amid the two major crises of the time. Being careful “to avoid the crowds,” Frances accompanied her mother on trips to New York to join in the push for war bonds. Schools closed, but news that her father was chosen to head a new U.S. Army hospital in England raised the family’s spirits.
On Tuesday, October 22 the more proximate enemy struck. Both of Frances’ younger sisters, 4-year-old Nancy and 10-year-old Barbara, acquired the virus and became bedridden. Their maternal grandmother had “bronchitis” that would later be diagnosed as Influenza. The next day Frances’ mother took ill and was confined to bed, while Frances tried to manage all the household duties on her own. “Mother has it the worst of all,” wrote Frances in describing how her mother could not stand without fainting, “I hope I don’t get it.”
Unlike Covid-19, the 1918 virus seems to have only been contagious when victims exhibited symptoms. Frances and her mother visited New York City just prior to becoming sick, and this was the height of Influenza infections; mid-October saw the peak of deaths in the city caused by the virus. Their neighbors became sick first and other friends in town soon died, so Plainfield struggled with community spread.
Frances and her maternal grandfather began “wearing gauze or cheesecloth masks” to protect themselves and the Red Cross was supplying masks to residents. That preventive measure came too late, however, as Frances became bedridden with Influenza for five days starting on October 24. But by Tuesday the 29th everyone in the house except Mother was “up & dressed,” though Frances felt “sort of shaky in the knees.”
She lamented the family’s close call with “new diseases” that ran through the family in quick succession in this era when vaccinations for most ailments did not yet exist. “We have now had measles, [w]hooping cough, chicken pox, mumps, and Spanish Influenza.” Frightening and frustrating experiences to be sure, especially when paired with her descriptions of more Influenza deaths in Plainfield, including the mayor’s son, and her mother’s continued bedridden condition. No Halloween trick and treating occurred this year.
Then “glorious news!” Word reached Plainfield on November 7 that Germany had surrendered, with official confirmation coming four days later. Despite the ongoing Influenza threat, parades and parties broke out spontaneously throughout the region. Cases of new viral infection dropped precipitously in November, however, giving confidence to everyone that the world was back on the right track.
Disturbingly, it was not until December 6 that “Mother is gaining and gets out a little now. She was in bed for nine weeks.” Mother needed another three weeks in convalescence in late January before fully recovering and was fortunate to have survived.
The 1918 Influenza virus encountered few barriers to spreading infection, information about it lacked specificity, preventative measures remained limited, and happenstance played too large a role in determining one’s fate. Frances and her sisters lived into their 90s knowing they had been lucky to survive the 1918 epidemic. One hundred and two years later, medical expertise has expanded exponentially, and therefore our political leaders should be less reliant on chance to prevent deaths.