Correspondence in a Pandemic: Then and Now

As the coronavirus epidemic started, I was in touch with a friend in Washington State via text messages on our phones. As technology has advanced, many of us do not send handwritten letters anymore. Even the notes that I write at work are digital since I write them on my tablet computer.

Back in 1918, during the Spanish Influenza Pandemic, almost all correspondence was written on paper. The only exceptions were telegrams, but even those were transcribed to paper. One account of what happened during the pandemic comes from the Seattle office of the National Archives. This typed letter is from the superintendent of the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, to a mother whose daughter died at the school from influenza.

The letter reads:

“My dear Mrs. Nye:

During the course of Spanish Influenza from which your daughter Cecilia died I was so extremely busy that it was impossible for me to tell you the particulars in connection with the death of Cecilia.

This plague attacked this school on the 13th of October. It was brought here at first by new students coming in and it spread rapidly until we had about 250 cases. The entire school stopped its regular activities and devoted itself absolutely to the care and nursing of the sick. Out of the 250 cases we lost a comparatively few. Among the number was your daughter. Absolutely everything possible was done in the way of medical care and nursing. The sick was never left alone for one minute, someone was administering to their needs and looking after them and I want you to feel that in this sickness that your daughter has had as good attention as she possibly could have had in any hospital or home. I have spared neither expense nor time nor trouble. Altogether I feel that we have done just as well as could be done. This disease which has taken thousands upon thousands throughout the country was no worse here than elsewhere. It was not due to Chemawa or its location. It was a general disease everywhere.

Now that the plague is over we have resumed our regular school work. All the students we have now are well and strong and getting along all right.

Trusting that Cecilia’s body reached you in good shape and sympathizing with you, I am

Sincerely your friend..”

There are many similar letters, some typed and others handwritten, from that time that tell us a more intimate, personal set of stories of what happened. Today, it would probably be easier to get personal accounts of what is going on, especially with billions of people active on social media. This can also lead to misinformation being distributed easier than ever.

Maybe in 100 years, researchers will search through Twitter and curate what people are saying about the coronavirus:

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Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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