MORRILL MEMORIAL LIBRARY

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A Century Later – Norwood’s Experience in the 1918 Flu Epidemic

The Black Death (or Bubonic or Great Plague) was a four-year epidemic that affected 30-60% of the European population. It was critical to the history of the Middle Ages that we studied.  The Great Plague is believed to have begun in Central Asia in the early 1330s where it was carried by rats on ships across and throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. It is believed to have killed up to 200 million people across Europe from 1347-1351 and it may have taken 200 years before the world’s population recovered from the loss of life from the epidemic.

Many of us remember studying the Middle Ages and its Black Death in school. What we might not have learned was that there were many plagues throughout history.

The Bubonic Plague reappeared several times again in Europe, but not with the same devastating power. Pulitzer Prize author Geraldine Brooks wrote a startling and heartbreaking account of towns in England suffering from a 1600s plague and its shattering impacts on families, government, and society. The 2001 historical novel, Year of Wonders, is currently in film production.

In 1918, at the end of The Great War (or WWI) the Spanish Flu, or the Pandemic of 1918-1919, affected one-fifth of the entire world’s population. It killed more people than those who had died in the Great War. Somewhere around 20 million to 40 million people died in twelve months.

I don’t remember studying or hearing much about the Spanish Flu in America. Many of my aunts and uncles were alive in 1918 – and certainly my grandparents – and I heard no stories from them during their lifetimes. However, 28% of Americans were affected by the Spanish Flu and more than 675,000 died. The epidemic affected Americans between 20 and 40 years of old the most severely –  more than 10 times the soldiers set to return to America from Europe died of the flu than who had died in the war.

Liz Reed, Adult Services Librarian here at our library in Norwood was recently awarded a Massachusetts Humanities Discussion grant to present Norwood’s experience with the pandemic of 1918.  A Century Later: Norwood’s Experience in the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 is a series of 8 events planned throughout the month of October. Several Town of Norwood departments have partnered with the Morrill Memorial Library – the Norwood Public Health Department, the Norwood Highland Cemetery, and the Norwood Senior Center. Also collaborating is the Norwood Historical Society.

Two of the events will focus on books. One was written by Norwood historian and retired professor, Patricia Fanning. Patti Fanning’s book, Influenza and Inequality, began as an academic study of the Town of Norwood’s response to the 1918 Epidemic was published in 1910 by the University of Massachusetts. The Historical Journal of Massachusetts writes that “Historians once thought that the pandemic struck down its victims irrespective of class or ethnicity. [Patricia] Fanning dispels this error, demonstrating that immigrants and the poor died in Norwood in disproportionate numbers.”

The other book being discussed during the series, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a novella by Katherine Anne Porter published in 1939.  Porter’s novella depicts the tragedy and suffering in a story of Miranda, a newspaper woman in Denver, Colorado who is tended while sick and delirious from the influenza epidemic of 1918. Adam, a soldier who is also stricken with the flu dies while Miranda is recovering.

The series will begin with a discussion of Porter’s novella at the Day House in Norwood on Tuesday, October 2. Dr. Cashman Kerr Prince, library trustee and member of the Historical Society, will lead the event beginning at 6:30 pm.

On October 10 at 6:30 pm, Dr. Al DeMaria will present A History of Firsts: Public Health in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Dr. DeMaria is Medical Director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences and State Epidemiologist in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. He is also President of the Massachusetts Infectious Diseases Society. He will lead us on a fascinating journey through the history of public health and disease in Massachusetts.

On Saturday, October 13 between 9 and 11 am, a flu vaccine clinic will be held at the Norwood Senior center. It is open to all residents 14 years or older and the Public Health Department requests that everyone who requests a vaccine bring their health insurance information.

On Monday, October 15 at 6:30 pm at the library, noted historian and author Anthony Sammarco will present Boston 1918: The Spanish Flu. He will lead participants on an exploration of Boston during World War I, the disease that decimated the world, and Boston’s response to the flu epidemic.

On Monday, October 22 at 6:30 pm at the library, author Patti Fanning and library director Charlotte Canelli will lead a discussion of Influenza and Inequality. Ms. Fanning will discuss Norwood’s tragic response to the pandemic that resulted in deaths that occurred in the pockets of Norwood where both the poor and immigrants lived in conditions that both spread the flu and did little to help its victims.

On Saturday, October 27 at 3:00 pm, Patti Fanning will lead a walking tour of Highland Cemetery, the resting place of many Norwood flu epidemic victims.  The walk literally illustrates history as the steps of the grieving families and overwhelmed town officials will be retraced. There will be simultaneous flu vaccine clinic on the cemetery grounds courtesy of the Norwood Public Health Department. (Rain date is Sunday, October 28.)

This month-long series will end with the last program on October 29 at 6:30 pm at the library. Influenza 1918, a short documentary film produced by WGBH Boston will be shown. A discussion will follow, tying together personal stories with the historical events.

Registration for these events is available by calling or visiting the library or emailing norprograms@minlib.net. Books for both discussion groups will be available upon registration.

Once the program has ended, book clubs may request the Book Club Kit of Patti Fanning’s book, Influenza and Inequality from the Minuteman Library catalog.  Please call the library for more information. We hope you will join us for this very historical, very relevant, very important series!

Alli Palmgren

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