Turn of the Century

Spanish Flu Origins w. Ben Kitchings

January 05, 2021
Turn of the Century
Spanish Flu Origins w. Ben Kitchings
Chapters
Turn of the Century
Spanish Flu Origins w. Ben Kitchings
Jan 05, 2021

The “Spanish Flu” spread during World War I, right at the end of our time period. However, this is a perfect story for our podcast because it shows how violently 19th century civilization clashed with our industrial age.

Benjamin Kitchens, host of the History Voyager podcast, joins the show to explain how Victorian-era medicine and science helped spread a deadly disease. The Spanish Flu was a turning point for researchers and doctors, who helped change sanitation and hospitalization strategies. So in a way, this pandemic can be seen as the END of 1800s medicine and the BEGINNING of Modern epidemiology.

Living through the Covid-19 pandemic, you may have heard parallels to the supposed 1918 Influenza. In this episode Kitchens is going to explain what we THINK the Spanish Flu was and how it wracked the world. Crisis gives us a window into politics, economics and culture from the past. Let’s step through and learn about a deadly end to the 1800s…

Hosted and produced by Joseph Hawthorne
Edited by Jordan Hawthorne (surprisingly unrelated)

You can find The History Voyager at
The History Voyager Facebook Group

@BensCharlie on Twitter

and email at [email protected]



Show Notes Transcript

The “Spanish Flu” spread during World War I, right at the end of our time period. However, this is a perfect story for our podcast because it shows how violently 19th century civilization clashed with our industrial age.

Benjamin Kitchens, host of the History Voyager podcast, joins the show to explain how Victorian-era medicine and science helped spread a deadly disease. The Spanish Flu was a turning point for researchers and doctors, who helped change sanitation and hospitalization strategies. So in a way, this pandemic can be seen as the END of 1800s medicine and the BEGINNING of Modern epidemiology.

Living through the Covid-19 pandemic, you may have heard parallels to the supposed 1918 Influenza. In this episode Kitchens is going to explain what we THINK the Spanish Flu was and how it wracked the world. Crisis gives us a window into politics, economics and culture from the past. Let’s step through and learn about a deadly end to the 1800s…

Hosted and produced by Joseph Hawthorne
Edited by Jordan Hawthorne (surprisingly unrelated)

You can find The History Voyager at
The History Voyager Facebook Group

@BensCharlie on Twitter

and email at [email protected]



Joseph Hawthorne:

Welcome to turn of the century, a podcast about the turn of the 20th century. I'm your host, Joe Hawthorne. And today we're talking about public health in a global pandemic, the Spanish Flu spread through World War One right at the end of our time period. However, this is the perfect story, because it shows how violently the 19th century and earlier clashed with our modern era. Benjamin kitchen's host of the history Voyager podcast joins our show to explain how outdated science and medicine helped spread a deadly disease. The Spanish Flu was a turning point for researchers and doctors who helped change sanitation, hospitalization, and other public health practices. So in a way, this pandemic can be seen as the end of Victorian medicine, and the beginning of modern epidemiology living through COVID-19. You may have heard of the 1918 influenza pandemic, in this episode, kitchens is going to explain what we think the Spanish Flu was, and how it racked communities crisis like this, give us a window into politics, economics and culture from the past. Let's take a step through and learn about the Spanish flu. Hello, everyone. I'm excited to be here today with fellow podcaster benjamite kitchens as we discuss the history and consequences of the Spanish flu. Ben, welcome to the show.

Benjamin Kitchens:

Thank you, Joe.

Joseph Hawthorne:

I'm really excited to talk about this subject today. Because I think it's a really good Nexus a really good turning point. If we're talking about the turn of the century. Now to get a basic understanding of can you explain what was the Spanish flu? I know, it's a huge question, but how do we understand in a very brief way?

Benjamin Kitchens:

Okay. Well, the brief way to understand is that we don't actually know. We don't actually know anymore. So what happened was, there was a this moment where we thought it was the flu. And we thought it was the flu for decades. When we when I say we don't mean you and me. I mean, I mean, the doctors, and some of the doctors that were working with it at the time, they kind of knew it wasn't the flu, but they didn't know what else to call it. So they call it the flu. Right? And then, as time progresses, you start to see other people, like survivors of the Spanish flu, come down with strokes, and seizures. And so people are like, no, that's not the flu doesn't do that. You see them saying? So. But let me back all the way up. There was a government report that was declassified in the 1950s, which is early came out in the 1950s. It was declassified by by Bush, Bush the second. And the government report said that the Spanish Flu most likely originated in Kansas around 1900. And it was in the the American bloodstream from 1900 all the way to 1926 or seven.

Joseph Hawthorne:

So okay, so now we've established it's the Kansas flu, but keep going.

Benjamin Kitchens:

Alright, so essentially what was going on was, there was a doctor named Lauren Milner and lowering melnor essentially, was this basically a country doctor who was riding around in a carriage dealing with diseases that you get in Kansas. And he was writing to Harvard, he was writing to Harvard med school, talking about I've got this thing that's knocking on entire farmhouses, and they're dying of strokes and heart attacks and, and this and that. And when you read Loring Milner's letters, and this is important, when you read his letters that were like in 1915, or 1917, depending on the seven of the five way. Literally, that's really what we're looking at, is you look at this number, and it's like, if that's a five that's thinking 15 1917, if it's seven, but anyway, so he's writing these letters, and he's saying, I've got this thing that's killing farmsteads. And, you know, whatever. But the thing is, when you read the letters, it's, you see, it's not a flu, it's not a flu like situation at all. It evolved into that. The proteins moved. The thing you need to understand is a virus has a generation of every two weeks. So the Spanish flu virus or like the COVID virus, Two weeks ago, I was in a different generation than it is now. Yeah.

Joseph Hawthorne:

So and I mean, I love comparing that to that is something that I definitely want to draw those parallels out. So then how do we think about this is the the Kansas mystery disease? What? What should we be calling this?

Benjamin Kitchens:

I, I personally just call it the Spanish flu, just because that's what people call it.

Joseph Hawthorne:

But so it's, it's the Spanish Flu plus is a kind of a way of thinking about it. Right? Well,

Benjamin Kitchens:

let me Okay, let's not, let's not throw everybody under the bus here. 10 years ago, I now know that I had h1 in one. And I now know that the doctor who literally I felt like sick as a dog and felt horrible. And I went into the doctor. And not even not even when I had blood pressure issues, did my doctor literally take a bottle of pills? Look me right into the eye, and say, young man, you take every single one of these pills. And you don't quit until the pills are gone. And you make sure to take them on time, drink plenty of water and get lots of rest. I've never had a doctor tell me that. In those words, that doctor thought I could have the Spanish Flu because I had h1 in one. So people use it. I mean, right thinking medical folks, in my lifetime, in my adult lifetime, thought the Spanish flu and h1 and when we're the same thing.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And so the question I'm getting at here. And I think this is also I have to give you a lot of credit, because we're talking about an entire season of content in one conversation or two conversations. But what I want to get at is, why was this such a big deal? You know, what, what made the Spanish Flu unique?

Benjamin Kitchens:

It was the first flu or the or the non flu, it was the first disease that spread through the power of steam. There was an industrial revolution that had taken place, okay, industrial revolution taking place and the powers that be had hadn't had any thought at all, that not only can you spread money, and humans and goods and animals, but you can spread diseases. They didn't know. Okay. Woodrow Wilson did not know that you can spread tuberculosis on a train or a steamboat.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And I'm curious. Yeah, so I never thought about this before. But I take it for granted. I think a lot of history students, lecturers who ever take it for granted that, you know, when the Columbian Exchange, Christopher Columbus going to the new world brought trade and goods but also disease, was that something that people understood at the time too, that other forms of transportation brought disease? Or was that you know, something that was affected by I

Benjamin Kitchens:

love that you say that. Because here's my favorite thing in history, like my favorite thing to think in history. Imagine a stock market graph. Imagine that the stock market graph is essentially what you want to think of is human culture, or human intellect. And all right, and you're looking at a line that goes up and down and ebbs and flows. So it's entirely possible that some Muslim cleric in North Africa or in what is today Spain, would have had a very amazing concept of diseases. And that amazing concept of diseases did not get to my ancestors who were living in mud huts, or your ancestors who were living wherever they were living. You see them saying like, so we live in this world now where somebody in China can think something up and put it on the internet, and then boom, we all know it, or at least all the people plugged into that know it all over the world pretty much at the same time. That didn't happen then.

Joseph Hawthorne:

So what you're getting at, because I like the Woodrow Wilson example is that the President of the United States didn't really understand how quickly diseases could have spread through transport, transportation, steam, etc. He

Benjamin Kitchens:

literally thought the Spanish Flu was even better. He you know, but also it wasn't just throwing him under the bus. Let's Let's not leave everybody else out. I mean, the doctors that have that we lionize as doctors that hey, they figured this out or they figured out they were very much. First of all, they had to ditch what they learned before they had to basically one doctor even wrote one doctor in Boston, even wrote, you know, I used to think this about The flu because I was told this about the flu. Now I have to say, Well, this is total, basically crap. But this was very brave for these thinkers and doctors to, to set aside, essentially, the thoughts that they had been trained. Let's narrow down even more into specifics. What was the scope of the Spanish Flu by let's say, the end of World War One, I

Joseph Hawthorne:

think that's the famous, most famous parts in 1918. And let's start there with modern

Benjamin Kitchens:

modern virologist, an epidemiologist. And when I say modern, I mean, literally, in the last few years, believe that half a billion with a B, people died, either because of the Spanish flu or from it. So we're talking a stupid amount of people. Okay, we're talking a massive amount people would doctors would write down, Oh, you've died of the cold or you died of whatever. Right. And a couple of years ago, I don't even run that when this was but a couple of years ago, there was a kerfuffle in Kansas, because one of the things that one of the first descriptors of the Spanish Flu was the blackface fever. Well, that sounds racist to you and me, doesn't it? So, the people in Kansas were like, what is this thing called the blackface fever? Well, the Kansas medical authorities Now remember, the Spanish Flu started in Kansas, right? Or at least that's what we think. Right? So the Kansas medical authorities in modern times, were like, Okay, if you died of the blackface fever, you died of the Spanish flu, because we're looking at learning Milner's letters, and we're saying, Loring Milner says that these people would cough so hard that blood vessels in their face would pop, causing them to look black. So he would say, well, this person died of the blackface fever.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And I'm curious, I don't know if you mentioned this before. But do we have any idea of where it like in Kansas how this disease appeared? Well,

Benjamin Kitchens:

here's what I'll tell you. And this is a very long winded answer, and I'm sorry. So let me first tell you how to get a virus, okay? The way to get a virus is to take basically, okay, viruses come from waterfowl, all right? waterfowl, or fish, and they manifest in GI tract of the waterfowl or fish. Okay. And then the mammal that you're going to eat, gets in the waste products of this virus. And then you eat the mammal. And then well, if you don't cook it, right, and you get the virus. Now, the government said that this was in the bloodstream around 1900. Loring Milner discovered it either in 1915, or 1970. So the answer to your question is no. But we do know, things that happen to the virus, like there was a kid named Harry underdown, who had all these recessive traits in his gene pool and stuff. And the virus, he he had the virus, and then he was sick a little bit. And then the virus went back into his system, and then killed him. Now, because the virus was able to do that is able to mutate into a serious killer, and you can win Trivia Night by repeating this fact right here. Harry underdown killed more people than Stalin, Hitler, Genghis Khan, kubla Khan, in every war America has ever fought in most of the Wars of Europe, combined. And I'm missing something. I mean, I'm Harry and Harry underdown is the number one killer of human beings on the planet.

Joseph Hawthorne:

He's kind of like this patient 00 Now I know that patient zero is a misnomer, but he's kind of

Benjamin Kitchens:

he was, he was one of the patient zeros for Europe, but he was not patient. 00.

Joseph Hawthorne:

Yeah. Would you be very careful with, you know, the the medical terms that we use and what we do and don't know, speaking of what we don't know or what people don't know, we've hinted at this, but since we're talking about the turn of the century, I want to focus right now on the 1800s. And before right, the things that influenced the things before the pandemic basically, so, what medical practices or lack of proper medical practices influence the spread of this pandemic, lack

Benjamin Kitchens:

of medical practices, the total lack of medical practices in at all, like total lack of. Okay. So basically, there was a thought that if you there was a thought that existed all over Europe and all over basically all over America that basically, the flu only killed poor people. And not only did it only kill poor people, but it only, you know, it only killed poor people that were ethnic groups other than the dominant ethnic group, which was English, the dominant ethnic group wasn't even white, it was English people. Right? You were being inclusive to include Scots, and Irish. You see them saying,

Joseph Hawthorne:

Yeah, okay, so so that means that, you know, if we're talking about the US, then then Germans, Italians, African Americans, you know, if you're not being generous, and you include Scots and Irish, right? You don't

Benjamin Kitchens:

include Irish? No Irish is, or we're worse than Germans. I mean, they were Woodrow Wilson was insanely racist against Irish people in German people and, you know, anyway. So But let's get back to your question.

Joseph Hawthorne:

Right? Well, I'm also thinking about, you know, I was listening to your episode, which I highly recommend about San Francisco about Philadelphia. And I was thinking about sanitation. So what are some of the other practices that I guess weren't practice? What are the things that were missing? That led to the spread lots of things.

Benjamin Kitchens:

So Philadelphia at the time, you had the Billy migration, which is what historians term the, the migration from Appalachia into urban society in America? Right. Okay. Philadelphia was one of the big beneficiaries of the Billy migration. Okay. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, you had a young men who had never washed their clothes in their lives, did not know about bathing, did not really know about sanitation, or food preparations, or any of that just basic things that most bachelors today know how to wash clothes, how to bathe, things like that. In fact, bathing came from the Spanish flu. Partly,

Joseph Hawthorne:

that's I mean, I'm, I'm speechless, they keep going.

Unknown:

Well, let's,

Joseph Hawthorne:

let's paper over that incredibly big statement for now. Let's keep talking about you know, what are, what are practices from the pre Spanish Flu period that influence the spread of the flu?

Benjamin Kitchens:

Well, like I just said, the lack of sanitation, the total lack of sanitation, the fact that there was no, there was no concept of city wide sanitation, or a lot of cities didn't have running water. Think about this, if you've got, say, 100,000. People who don't know how to clean their clothes, don't know how to wash the clothes, don't know how to cook animal flesh properly. And then you've got a pandemic, or Okay, you've got a disease that has a bigger mortality percentage than COVID does, which is spread, at least partly through not being sanitary, and living closer together and all sorts of stuff, you're going to spread that disease, when you add overtop of that, that the doctor that the sick person might encounter, might not think that white people can Dyer, the flu, right? He might be on board that the Spanish Flu kills people. Like he might think that people can die of the Spanish flu, just not this guy in front of me.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And so I'm curious, what would doctors let's say, I don't know, the average doctor do as treatment for the Spanish flu. If they even believed that someone could die of it?

Benjamin Kitchens:

Well, we need to get rid of the idea of the we need to essentially get rid of the idea of the average doctor, because it wasn't a good start. Okay, so eliminate that. You know, if the doctor was educated enough to maybe think that people were all the same, which he wouldn't have thought entirely, like interracial marriages didn't happen. Okay. Like, you know, you know, I'm saying he, the doctor might have believed that, that you and I can give each other a disease on some intellectual level they might have but they wouldn't have had evidence of that. Other you know, they wouldn't have had evidence of that, that they could pull. too

Joseph Hawthorne:

well. So let me rephrase the question a little bit, then what were possible treatments, no

Benjamin Kitchens:

treatment worked. And that's the other thing. There were no treatments that actually worked. They would try to make you comfortable, they would put you at an angle they would, you know, but nothing they try it actually work. But then again, there's a lot of thought, from modern virologist that what we call the Spanish Flu might not have been one disease. You know, they didn't have microphones, or my microscopes, sorry, their microscopes. They never put a live Spanish flu virus. Under a microscope, there was never any proper analysis of a, of a living Spanish flu virus. So we don't actually know what it was, we don't actually know. There was there was a thought that it could be cholera, plus something else. Except cholera doesn't kill you the way Spain's flu kills you, right? Hey, you die of dehydration from cholera, with the Spanish flu, you would die either from your lungs would fill up with this pus, which we generally call mucus, but it was a stick is caulk, basically. Or you died of a stroke, or you died of a heart attack, or your brain would would suddenly starve itself of oxygen to where you would you would scream, and then you would die. And also, there's the timeline. It's weird. And a lot of cases, you could be healthy in the morning and be dead before sundown. There were a whole lot of cases of that

Joseph Hawthorne:

I was speeding back to your episodes about individual cities. I think it was in San Francisco that someone was in a divorce court, right. And they announced they had the Spanish flu. That's right. And then they were dead by the what the evening, the afternoon, which terrifying, it's terrifying. And you don't have a standard set of doctors, you know, if you think about treatment being moving you a little bit in bed. That's terrifying. So I'm curious, you know, what are other parts of society that we can understand? through studying the Spanish flu? I think that the military or you know, military, hospitals, normal hospitals, what other pieces of the early 1900s 19 teens? Can we understand more talking about the Spanish flu? Well, here's something you can understand

Benjamin Kitchens:

right away the way to the way that you and I can look at a person. And okay, here's how to say it. The way to die of the Spanish flu is to drop dead adjacent to a doctor who thought you could have died to the Spanish flu, there were a whole lot of people who died in the cold in San Francisco, there were a whole lot of people who died of something that nobody knows what it was, there was the Curious Case of they call it The Curious Case of Mrs. McGinty boyfriend or something like that. I forget. It's a lady's name and the word boyfriend, okay. But he died of a fever fell into a vat of flour. And everybody who ate bread out of that flour died. That's not the flu. That's not what you and I would call a flu. Right? That's something else. So one thing to understand one window into the 19th century that we get from the Spanish Flu was this was a period of time that had this amazing technological breakthrough series of breakthroughs that they hadn't really thought out. They hadn't considered. They hadn't widen, you know, thought of the ramifications of this. Another thing is, you see the 19th century, classism, you see 19th century racism play out, every, you know, in every which way, like every, everywhere you go, you see how you can have these adult men who don't know how to clean themselves and don't know essentially how to do basic housekeeping things. Right. So you see that the families in the 19th century their family unit was bigger. They conceived of themselves as not just a nuclear family, but extended families living living in houses or around farmsteads. The other window that that you and I can gain from the Spanish flu and how to survive the Spanish Flu that maybe would have evaded or would have evaded detection from a from an earlier person is that with the Spanish flu, so the other Okay, you could be adjacent to You might not be a farmer, but you could be adjacent to being a farmer, but you could be adjacent to a farmer, or you could know a farmer, or whatever. So it's easier to live off the grid. Which brings me to the other reason that the Spanish food debt total keeps rising, which is very few people in 1918, we had interactions with authorities, the way we would think of today, but you and I have more interactions with authorities in a month, or in two months, or in a six month period than a lot of people had in their lifetime. I mean, when you go to the DMV that generates a record, when you go to, you know, you go to the DMV, you pay your power bill, you pay your, your, this, you pay your cable, you there's paperwork on you, you might there might be people that there is no paperwork on that managed to get to be adults in drop dead of the Spanish flu, but they don't call it that.

Joseph Hawthorne:

And I think that's a, that's a great example, to describe what you were just talking about earlier about all these technological changes coming into being that people could interact, you know, with steam power with, with the Industrial Revolution, or the the effects of it, but also not really have any records of them and not, you know, be able to track the consequences of the things you're just talking about. So what I want to do is, pause our conversation right here, because I think we've kind of reached the some of the darkest parts of the Spanish flu, but also an understanding of what it was a bit of the history about it. So we're going to come back and talk next week, about After Effects, the ending or the winding down, I guess, the Spanish flu, and learn a little bit more about some of the parallels ways that history might not repeat, but might rhyme a little bit in a future episode. So Ben, thank you so much for talking. I really enjoyed it. If people enjoyed listening to your expertise and your voice, where can they find you

Benjamin Kitchens:

the history Voyager pod bean comm I'm on it's called the history Voyager. I'm on every pod catcher you can imagine Apple Spotify, cast box, you name it. Um, they're just the history Voyager. Right now I'm interviewing people, I was going to do the enlightenment. But the more I get into it, the more I realize, you know, the Enlightenment doesn't really affect people the way I thought it was. That's a whole nother conversation.

Joseph Hawthorne:

So So season two is still in the works, then I'm

Benjamin Kitchens:

no, I'm interviewing people. That is season two. Okay, I'm actually interviewing people. And I'm going to do a deep dive in something. I haven't quite figured out what yet.

Joseph Hawthorne:

Well, I highly recommend your season one then, which is a deep dive on the Spanish flu and season two, which is full of great conversations on a variety of subjects that do

Benjamin Kitchens:

affect us. I'm also I've talked to a woman that covered the coup in Venezuela, for example, that that's that's a highlight. So this sort of interviews grew out of the fact I wanted to talk to people about COVID about them living with COVID or them living in COVID. World basically, what is that like for you,

Joseph Hawthorne:

then? That's I mean, I think that's great. And I mean, Venezuela, is you said Venezuela, right?

Benjamin Kitchens:

Venezuela? Yes,

Joseph Hawthorne:

yes. Okay. I mean, I think that's awesome. I think conversations about people from Venezuela to you know, supermarket cashiers, and everything in between are super relevant, and a great connection to going from the Spanish Flu towards our modern era. So speaking of which, I hope you'll join us next time for a conversation about more of those connections. In the meantime, if you enjoyed my voice, then you can subscribe here at turn of the century. You can also rate review, tell your friends about it, it really helps us get discovered and bring on more amazing guests. So thank you, we'll see you next week.