Wednesday, April 10, 2019

It's the Flu

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic has been described as “World War I’s darker twin.”* The outbreak of Spanish flu began in 1918, and by the time the world-wide plague had ended, it had become the deadliest pandemic in human history, claiming an estimated 50 - 100 million victims** – vastly exceeding even the millions of war deaths.  Researchers believe that as many as “one third of the world’s population were infected,” and the fatality rate was exceptionally high: at least 2.5% of those infected died.*** The disease was most deadly among the young and healthy, as their robust immune systems violently overreacted to the virus.  Those affected “coughed blood and bled from the nose. Death was usually caused as bacteria invaded the lungs, turning … [them] into sacks of fluid and thus effectively drowning the patient.”

While the origins of the pandemic are disputed, “no one disagrees about its path: it followed the war.”†† An anonymous poem published (curiously) in Nice Poems by Nice War Workers (1919) uses dark humor to comment on pervasive menace of the illness.  Influenza was the answer to every medical question – too often, the final answer. 

It’s the Flu

When your head is blazing, burning
And your brain is turning,
Unto buttermilk from churning,
            It’s the Flu.
When your joints are creaking, cracking,
As if all the fiends were racking,
All the devils were attacking,
            It’s the Flu.
It’s the Flu, Flu, Flu
Which has you, you, you,
It has caught you and has got you
And it sticks like glue.
It’s the very latest fashion,
It’s the doctor’s pet and passion,
So sneeze a bit and sneeze a bit—
Ka-chew, chew chew.
When the stomach grows uneasy,
Quaking, querulous or queasy,
All dyspeptic and diseasy,
            It’s the Flu.

When you have appendicitis,
Par-enchy-ma and ne-phri-tis,
Laryngitis or gastritis,
            It’s the Flu.
When you have a corn or pimple,
Complicated ill or simple,
Broken bone or fading dimple,
            It’s the Flu.
When, no matter what assails you,
If no doctor knows what ails you,
Then the answer never fails you,
            It’s the Flu. 

* Jane Elizabeth Fisher, “Teaching the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as Part of a World War I Curriculum,” in Teaching Representations of the First World War, edited by Debra Rae Cohen and Douglas Higbee, MLA, 2017.
** Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics,” CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 2006.
*** Taubenberger and Morens, “1918 Influenza.”
† Howard Phillips and David Killingray, The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19: New Perspectives, Routledge, 2003.
†† Fisher, “Teaching.”

Thanks to Lucy London for help with "ciseasy/diseasy" and for finding an alternative version of this poem published in the Jan. 1919 Coal Mining Review. 

1 comment:

  1. I have wondered how many of the deaths listed as being from the war may have been actually flu deaths. One would probably prefer,if it could at all be said, to write home to the family of the deceased that he died fighting the enemy.