The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is here. With all the fear, isolation, and social distancing, it feels like a new era. Prior generations, however, have lived through parts of this, minus the technology. 

My grandparents lived through the H1N1 Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1920, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans. Though the epidemic sprang up in the Eastern states, it spread nationwide. Even in rural Minnesota, the news must have reached them. 

There was no radio or telephone. There were telegraphs – although I cannot imagine a telegraph reaching the farmstead in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota. Epidemic news certainly made its way into the Willmar newspaper, which my grandparents were likely to purchase on their occasional forays into town. Or, they may have heard the news from the well-traveled Norling brothers, who ran a prosperous grain and feed operation 3 miles away from the farm. 

My grandparents left no written record of their lives. Perhaps the flu did not extend to the small isolated farms, or perhaps it was frozen out in the chilly winters. My aunts and uncles were too young to attend school in 1918. That may have saved them. My grandfather died of pneumonia when my father was a young boy, but I cannot locate the date of the death. We do not know if it was a complication of the flu.

Survival was a game of chance for my grandparents.  There was the ever present danger of tetanus, carried within the soil. A vaccine first became available in 1924, saving the lives of many soldiers in World War II. Less common than tetanus, diphtheria was a feared killer. A diphtheria vaccine was not available until the 1920’s. 

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The discovery of Penicillin in 1928 changed the trajectory of illness, and mostly likely saved at least one of my aunts and uncles from death.  Whooping cough, particularly dangerous for young infants, was common until the vaccine was developed in the 1940’s. I recall the deep whooping sound which gave the disease its name.

For my father and his siblings, polio was a periodic threat. There was a mass infection in the NE USA in 1916, with 27,000 cases reported. The 1940’s and early 50’s saw polio epidemics cyclically sweep the nation, seeming to favor the warmer months. 

I was born in 1951. In elementary school, I remember my mother, a nurse, talking about polio patients in the hospital, and I remember being told by my teachers of classmates in an iron lung. In my teens I visited the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, founded by Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian by birth, who pioneered a novel polio treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Contrary to established protocol, which involved encasing the paralyzed limb in plaster casts, Sister Kenny left the limb unbound and used hot compresses followed by passive movement to encourage recovery. Her controversial innovation in Minnesota became the foundation of the physical therapy profession. 

Jonas Salk developed the first injectable inactivated vaccine in 1949, which was adopted for mass immunizations in 1955. This vaccine, which required formalin, was not fool-proof. Polio cases still occurred in those who had been vaccinated.  Albert Sabin, in 1957, developed an attenuated vaccine in liquid form. In 1961 the “Sabin on Sundays” nationwide public health campaign was launched.  

My parents loaded us into the car after church, and drove us to a school, which was being used as the administration site.  We would join the queue of children waiting to get the vaccine. A sugar cube was saturated with the pink syrupy vaccine, which disguised its bitter taste. We were handed a sugar cube in a small paper cup. We let it dissolve in our mouths, and chased it down with water. This process was repeated for two more consecutive Sundays as three doses were required for immunity. 

The measles vaccine was developed in 1963, the mumps vaccine in 1967, and rubella in 1969. The combined single dose measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine was not introduced until 1971.  Chickenpox vaccine was not introduced in the USA until 1995. 

My childhood predated these vaccines. By the time they became available, I had already succumbed to the measles, mumps, and chickenpox. My mother would become particularly grave when we succumbed to measles. She would check on us several times a day, checking our temperature and listening to our hearts.

Measles was feared because it could lead to rheumatic fever, permanently damaging the heart. Worse for me as a child was chickenpox. The pox itched. If we scratched them they would burst open, leaving a residual scar. My mother would insist that we not scratch. She tried to help us by converting us into little pink zombies, slathered head to toe in pink Calamine lotion. Mumps was uncomfortable, making it painful to eat. As a consolation, popsicles and ice cream were liberally dispensed.  

Since one sister was 18 months older than me, and another eleven months younger, germs, like our bedroom, were shared.  I remember one incidence in particular. I must have been 4 years old, as we lived in the house on Dionne Street in St. Paul. We were all sick with fevers. 

My mother made all three of us stand on the floor and lean over the edge of the bed, side by side, our naked buttocks exposed. We knew what was coming and would start crying as soon as she made us go into her bedroom. Our mother went bing, bing, bing, down the line, injecting our buttocks with penicillin one at a time. 

Today’s children are spared those injections. Fine gauge needles were not yet created. Injections in the 1950’s hurt. Badly. 

We are fortunate to live in an era when so many communicable diseases have been vanquished. Perhaps that is why the COVID-19 virus incites such anxiety. We are not accustomed to confronting a disease that is spreading so rapidly and has no vaccine. 

Barbara Creswell is a retired staff member at the University of Colorado Denver’s College of Nursing.