Looking back from the perspective of the 21st century it may seem a bit crazy. But perhaps a century from now people will look back in wonder at how quick we were to turn from science to rumors and wives tales in an effort to battle a pandemic.
During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 a rumor about onions swept the country. And soon people were buying them in bushel baskets, slicing them, and then placing throughout the house as it was believed that the onions could “absorb” the virus and thus keep the family safe. The idea was even marketed as a display of patriotism.
Of course in the second decade of the 20th century misinformation, old wives tales, rumors and such didn’t spread quite as quickly. And it wasn’t as easy to give misinformation the façade of credibility. The social media network of the day consisted of hand crank telephones, the telegraph, the rural postman that traveled by horse, and newspapers.
But before passing judgment we must understand that people were desperate. The horrors and brutality of World War I had claimed an estimated 16 million lives. But the influenza epidemic that began sweeping the world in 1918 left an estimated 50 million people. Countless others suffered debilitating health issues for the remainder of their life.
For some the tsunami of death was viewed as the the beginning of the end times. For those who survived relatively unscathed by the war and devastation of the viral plague, it was the end of the beginning, the dawn of a new era.
When the pandemic commenced medical science was firmly rooted in he research of the mid to late 19th century. And this was in spite of the fact that smallpox inoculations had become standard practice since the late 18th century.
The pandemic of 1918 ignited an unprecedented international outpouring of finances for medical research. In 1931, at Vanderbilt University, medical researchers discovered a process to grow the influenza virus in fertile chicken eggs. This was a major milestone as it meant that viruses for study no longer had to be harvested from infected people or animals.
The next stage in understanding the complexities of viral infection came when scientists identified two types of flu viruses, naming them A, capable of infecting both human and animals, and B that infected humans only. But most medical scientists were seeing this discovery as only a small step toward development of vaccines.
With the ability to identify viral characteristics researchers began working on vaccines in earnest. An initial setback in vaccine development was the discovery that immunity against one type of virus does not give immunity against the other or against mutated varieties. As a result the first successful influenza vaccine contained a mixture of dead virus, a precedent still followed today. In time this would allow for the faster development of more effective vaccines.
With concerns about another war in Europe growing by the day, in 1937 British researchers began inoculating soldiers with newly developed vaccines. And in the United States, a team of researchers led by Jonas Salk initiated mass vaccination of military personnel in 1944. Vaccination for civilians followed in 1945.
All of these discoveries and all of this research served as the foundation for the development of medical protocols and vaccines that in coming decades would almost eradicate the scourge of polio, measles and other infections that had plagued man since time immemorial.
Our understanding of genes, their chemical codes, and and how to correct them is also rooted in the post pandemic medical research.
The pandemic of 1918 was the end of medicines beginning chapter. But it remains a long journey to the possible beginning of the final chapter.