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The Coronavirus is New, But Not Much Different from Viruses Suffered by Our Ancestors

The news stories these days are full of articles about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) infections. I won’t repeat them here, but I will point out that this is nothing new. Our ancestors frequently suffered with similar and often much worse epidemics.

About a month ago, before the Coronavirus had become much of a problem in the US, I published a Plus Edition article entitled Epidemics. In the introduction, I wrote:

“Our ancestors lived in fear of epidemics, and many of them died as the result of simple diseases that could be cured today with an injection or a prescription.

“If you ever wondered why a large number of your ancestors disappeared during a certain period in history, you may want to investigate the possibility of an epidemic. Many cases of people disappearing from records can be traced to dying during an epidemic or moving away from the affected area.”

You can read that article at A Plus Edition user name and password are required to read it.

Of course, one of the more recent epidemics (“only” 102 years ago) was the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920. It infected 500 million people around the world, or about 27% of the world population of between 1.8 and 1.9 billion. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history. Some historians and epidemiologists have theorized that the flu originated in Kansas while others believe it started in the close quarters of the trenches and military encampments of World War I. Whatever the origins, the Spanish Flu quickly spread worldwide.

Frederick (Friedrich) Trump (or Trumpf)

Then as now, the virus showed no favoritism. After a one-day illness, on 30 May 1918, Donald Trump’s grandfather, Frederick Trump (or  Friedrich Trumpf in the original German) succumbed to a case of pneumonia that would later be identified as a complication of the “Spanish flu.” In fact, the President’s grandfather was one of the first domestic casualties of the world’s worst modern pandemic, which ultimately killed millions.


The death toll from the Spanish Flu was undoubtedly worsened by the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to talk down the health risk. Even President Wilson could not avoid the contagious disease; he became ill in the midst of the World War I peace talks held in Paris. In April 1919, Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson, personal physician to the President, wrote to a friend, explaining that: “These past two weeks have certainly been strenuous days for me. The President was suddenly taken violently sick with the influenza at a time when the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance.”

The extent of President Wilson’s illness was not revealed to the American people, however. Instead, to maintain confidence in the President, Grayson informed the press that it was merely a cold caused by the “chilly and rainy weather” in Paris.

Sound familiar?

An interesting history of the Spanish Flu, as observed in Chicago, can be found in an article in the Chicago and Cook County Cemeteries web site at:

The article provides an interesting historical perspective of the experiences of our ancestors in the days before penicillin and other modern drugs.

Over 8,000 Chicagoans died in a matter of months despite signs placed in theaters, streetcars and elevated trains to warn against the danger of spitting, coughing, and sneezing. Undertakers and cemeteries were overwhelmed. There were orders that wake attendance be limited to 10 people at a time. Public funerals were totally prohibited for a time.

Yes, life and death from diseases and viruses is not a modern peril. In fact, it was far worse in “the good old days.”

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