Viruses in Family History

Published 4-4-2020

Childhood memories have been resurrected during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Personal experiences with viral diseases were a significant part of childhood events in the lives of most older citizens today. For example, most seniors recall experiences with measles and mumps—common viral diseases of our childhood. Terminology used by our parents help us recall some of the illnesses plaguing children and adults in the first half of the 20th century. When we contracted the viral diseases measles or mumps as young people, senior citizens may also have heard our parents talking about a disease called “the grippe.” That viral disease is now known as flu, short for influenza.

Before relating several century-old family recollections concerning the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, we share a more recent unusual family incident from 1982 related to the mumps virus. The Knoxville TN 1982 World’s Fair was the second to last US World’s Fair. Our family was a part of the 11 million visitors attending the event that summer. The fair attractions were entertaining for our young family. We returned home without incident, but there was trouble and discomfort on the horizon. The mother of the family, my wife, became very ill at home about two weeks after we departed the fairgrounds. She experienced severe headaches, body aches, and fever. One night I thought I would lose her. At first the family doctor thought the swelling on one side of her neck was a dental issue. But when acute discomfort followed, the doctor later re-diagnosed her illness as an “atypical case of mumps.” By not having mumps as a child she had not developed natural immunity. Her husband theorized and the doctor agreed that an unvaccinated international visitor at the fair had arrived in Knoxville with an active mumps virus and had used drinking fountains. The story is now part of our family lore.         

Measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles) were largely banished by vaccination technology in mid-20th century. The MMR vaccine blend was released in 1971. Combined with previously developed DPT (pertussis, diphtheria, and tetanus) vaccines against bacterial infections, we are living in days of medical ‘marvels’ some may call medical ‘miracles.’ 

Currently the family of coronaviruses garners most of the attention owing to the recent appearance of the novel COVID-19 pandemic. Other more well known influenza virus families also cause important human illnesses. They are called influenza A, B, and C viruses. Influenza D is primarily an animal disease. We have many H1N1 viruses, subtypes of influenza A viruses. Dozens of different combinations of H protein and N protein viruses exist. Future mutations of these viruses are sure to develop. Virology is a complex and extremely difficult body of knowledge. In our day when the present and future characteristics of novel virus mutations are not yet known, the populace is understandably impatient when a new strain such as COVID-19 is harvesting the health and/or lives of so many citizens. Sadly, politicians on both sides of the aisle capitalize on the inability of members of the opposite party to correctly predict and act in a timely fashion to benefit citizens who acquire serious illnesses. Never was a unified and cooperative response needed more than now. COVID-19 will not wait for our citizens to resolve political disagreements.

Dr. Deborah Birx currently serves as high profile “Coronavirus Response Coordinator” for the current administration. Before she received her medical degree at Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Birx received her BS in chemistry from the evangelical Houghton College in western New York State. She later became a colonel in the US army and has served in many official government roles, including HIV/AIDS immunology. 

Birx relates a personal family story highlighting the necessity of avoiding the spread of infections with close personal contacts. The horrific Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 took the lives of at least 50 million people across the planet—the worst pandemic in modern human history. In 1918 Birx’s grandmother passed the deadly virus to her mother (Birx’s great-grandmother) by innocently bringing the infection home from school. The great-grandmother died shortly after giving birth to another child. But for many years the grandmother lived with guilt for the illness for which she may have been innocently responsible.

In 1918 a few viruses had been discovered but never seen. They were much too small to be observed even with most powerful microscopes of the day. The infections were caused by so-called “infectious soluble agents.” This information was incorrect and useless. In the 1930s electron microscopes gave scientists their first visual experience with viruses. Vaccines had been ineffective because scientists still thought bacteria were the cause. Even control methods such as isolation, quarantine, effective personal hygiene, disinfectant use, and limitations on public gatherings were not applied or enforced with our contemporary vigor. Poor health practices of that day    were more deadly than the virus itself. 675,000 Americans died. Many of these were in military service in the closing months of World War I.

My maternal grandfather was born in Switzerland in 1860, eleven months before the US Civil War commenced. He emigrated alone to the US from Switzerland at age 16. His future wife’s entire family had emigrated from Switzerland in 1866. They were married in 1886. They were devout, God-fearing Christian farmers in Oklahoma and later moved to Kansas. The couple became parents of 15 children in the 20 years between 1887 and 1907. My mother was the youngest, born in 1907 in what was then Oklahoma Territory. There were nine boys and six girls.

With the foregoing family history, we now transition to its significance in terms of viruses in international history. We offer a “shoutout” to my mother who preserved literally hundreds of postcards, letters, and family records, many from late in the 1910-20 decade when the H1N1 Spanish flu virus took the lives of 50 million world residents.

Five or six young men from the Meister family were of military service age in 1917-1919. The Spanish flu pandemic swept across the world in 1918-19. In these pre-radio and pre-TV days my mother frequently busied herself writing letters to her older siblings, several of whom had been conscripted for military service. Telephones were almost unknown on the Oklahoma and Kansas prairies. In my possession are several letters referring to the flu virus illness which struck members of the Meister family over a century ago, even though no one in that era knew of the existence of a flu virus. One cousin recently informed me that his mother, born in 1897, nearly died of the Spanish flu. In letters and cards there were many references to serious illnesses suffered in 1918-19 by at least eight members of this large family. We quote several of many:

From my 11-year old mother to her older brother on 11/29/1918: “We are not having no school now because the “flu” is so bad and more cases. We never had the “flu” yet. We had school all last week and two days this week and the “flu” got so bad that they had to close the school and churches again.”  
In another letter to the same brother on 1/26/1919 my mother wrote: “We are all well but Lillian and it looks like she is getting over it now. She had the flue but Father got the Doctor and she is getting over it alright now.” (These letters were written to her brother at Fort Leavenworth, KS, a military camp for conscientious objectors.) 

Another brother served actively in the France theater of War during the closing days of World War I. He wrote to his family in the US: “I had that hen flu too. Believe me I thought I would kick the bucket for a few days.” (This complete letter is a treasured four-page personal account of the “awful war.”)

In the current pandemic is God “telling us something?” God tells us many truths in His inspired Word, the Holy Scriptures. There are many instructions for dealing with trials and adversity (James 1:2-4). Is this “The End?” In our human frame, we do not know; only God knows (Matthew 24:36). There are countless difficult temporal circumstances we are challenged to solve. In the end, these conditions serve to strengthen us. As we study the impact of the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, we may conclude that its challenges far exceeded the current COVID-19 world pandemic. It occurred in conjunction with a horrible World War. We are encouraged that humanity has risen above many more difficult challenges than the current one. We rest in the strength and wisdom of our Creator, and we are thankful.

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