Traverse City Record-Eagle

Record-Eagle 150th Anniversary

May 4, 2009

Loraine Anderson: Reading between flu lines

It's amazing how one small personal common detail can link past and present.

Ralph Guido Wallace is my connection to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and World War I. He lived in my neighborhood.

I know nothing more about this local soldier other than what I read in a 1918 Record-Eagle. He died Sept. 28, 1918, of Spanish influenza, seven days after he became ill in a New Jersey hospital. He was married on June 1 and sometime later that month transferred from Camp Custer, a World War I training camp near Battle Creek, to Newark military camp.

I drove by his house last week after writing a story about the Spanish flu epidemic here in 1918. The soft-green color of the old two-story frame house merged gracefully into the dusk of a wet April night. From there, I went to Veterans Park at Division and Bay to look for his name on the World War I monument.

"Ralph Wallace," it said. No Guido, no middle initial "G.

I wondered what Traverse City officials and families of flu victims were thinking in late 1918 when they apparently decided not to follow state recommendations for preventing the spread of Spanish influenza.

Did they believe the flu here was a milder form of the worldwide epidemic that was killing millions? Were they trying to shield the business district from "necessary shopping only" limitations? Should the Record-Eagle have taken a stronger editorial stand sooner?

Or was Spanish influenza so outside their ken they had no idea how savage and unmerciful it was? Scientists of the time thought the killer flu was caused by bacteria, not a virus. Little was known then about viruses or how to treat them.

The Spanish flu taught Traverse City it needed a good city hospital instead of relying on Traverse City State Hospital and Dr. James Munson to come to its rescue. It also underlined the importance of full-time public local health workers, strict quarantines, public education and cooperation.

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