1918: When Another Pandemic Struck Close to Home

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

In 1998, the eightieth anniversary of the Spanish Flu pandemic, I was fortunate to hear two survivors relate their indelible experiences. Marian McConkey and Lois Monahan were schoolgirls then, old enough to grasp the reach of the Reaper as the Spanish Flu swept across the nation.

It was 1918, and the war in Europe was on. In March, the first case of what became known as the Spanish Flu appeared at a Kansas Army post. By late 1919, 675,000 Americans had died. Around the world, an estimated 60 million lives would be lost by 1922.

In the United States, my state of Pennsylvania became one of the hardest hit, where some 60,000 people died, and few locales escaped. The flu came suddenly to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, according to University of Pennsylvania archives, when some 600 sailors came down with it on September 18, 1918. Against the warnings of public health officials, organizers of a fundraising parade for the war effort decided to go ahead, and not much more than a week later, over 200,000 Philadelphians thronged to the patriotic event. Within 72 hours, 12,000 would be dead, and within six months, 8,000 more in the City of Brotherly Love.

Three weeks later, according to sources, the Spanish Flu arrived in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. On October 29, 176 deaths were recorded in the city, and at 4,500, Pittsburgh’s death rate became the highest in the nation.

Eighty years later, our daughter, Rebecca, then a seventh grader in Grove City, Pennsylvania schools, chose to participate in the History Day competition. Her topic? The 1918 Pandemic. She did what research was available to her in 1998, but went further. With pen and notebook, she interviewed Dr. Edward Smith, M.D., still in practice today, who provided knowledgeable insight into the flu’s symptom’s and ravages.

When she learned two survivors of the Spanish Flu were living at the local Penn Grove Hotel and might be willing to be interviewed, Rebecca and I, camera in hand, trooped the few doors west on Pine Street to meet her two first-person sources.

Ms. Marian McConkey, born in July 1908, went through Grove City Schools, and after earning her degree at Grove City College, enjoyed a storied life, given her work as a machinist at the Bessemer Works in World War II, a house mother in Borneo in the early days of the Peace Corps, and a librarian for her alma mater.

As Ms. McConkey sat bundled in her afghan that chilly evening in 1998, she didn’t mind the video camera I held over Rebecca’s shoulder as she reached back into time. She believed the disease skirted the town for the most part, but a peculiar memory stuck with her. With her aged fingers, she traced the shape of the asafoetida bags of foul-smelling herbs everyone wore around their necks to ward off the flu. The bags, she said, only kept others away. No records have surfaced detailing the Spanish Flu’s impact in Grove City, but not far away in the nearby town of New Castle, over 2,800 cases were recorded, resulting in over 200 deaths.

Lois Monahan would have been about 12 years old when death struck her Pittsburgh classroom. Although she survived to become a supervisor for The Pittsburgh Press newspaper, life for her wasn’t so certain in October 2018. Emotion laced her words as she remembered going back to school after quarantine. There were fewer desks in her room, she saw, because the teachers had removed those assigned to her classmates who had died, and tried to arrange them so the room didn’t look so empty. It was hard to keep the camera steady and eyes dry as I listened to her recounting.

Ms. McConkey and Ms. Monahan were pleased to learn Rebecca won the local History Day competition and went on to State College with her presentation. Ms. Monahan went to her rest on a warm July day in 2000, crisp to the end, Ms. McConkey died April 29, 2008, a few months shy of a century.

They might have counted themselves fortunate not to experience another pandemic. Let us hope that the pandemic of 2020 is not nearly as bad.

About Philip W. Gasiewicz

Phil Gasiewicz is a retired national security executive who lives in Western Pennsylvania and serves as a Grove City College trustee.

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