By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor
If history is an indicator, we are in this for the long haul. In spite of our most fervent wishes to get outside and enjoy the rites of spring—college graduations, Mother’s Day, youth sports—life is unlikely to return to normal anytime soon. The great influenza of 1918, considered the deadliest pandemic in modern history, offers a social distancing roadmap for tackling today’s COVID-19.
After Philadelphia detected its first case of flu in September 1918, leaders warned people about openly coughing and sneezing, but ten days later the city hosted a parade attended by 200,000 people. The number of influenza cases continued to mount, and two weeks after the first case there were 20,000 more. Several cities (St. Louis's Red Cross motor poll is shown above) responded quickly and decisively—and had a strikingly lower initial death rate.
As the world grinds to a halt in response to the coronavirus, scientists and historians are studying the 1918 outbreak, which killed 675,000 Americans and from 50 million to 100 million people worldwide, for clues to the most effective way to stop the pandemic.
St. Louis strictly communicated and enforced social distancing, giving it one of America’s lowest urban death rates when the outbreak, known as the great influenza, swept the nation (and the world). Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Columbus, Ohio, did the same thing—and had lower death rates the first few months.
But that’s not the takeaway—because St. Louis relaxed. It declared victory too soon.
That second bump in this graphic above shows the influenza's tragic reoccurrence in St. Louis, writes Nat Geo’s Nina Strochlic. Death rates shot up, higher than before.
The lesson from history–don’t cave to a restless, pent-up, impatient populace; it could be fatal. Even as the beauty of spring comes into bloom, keep your distance!
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A 160-year-old discovery
The youngest slave ship passenger: Sometimes it takes time for history to get it right. Matilda McCrear recently was identified as the youngest and longest living passenger on the Clotilda, the last ship on which enslaved Africans were brought to the United States in July 1860. At least two others aboard Clotilda had been considered the longest-living survivors in recent years. Now, Dr. Sylviane Diouf, a historian who wrote the definitive book on Africans aboard the ship, has confirmed that McCrear, who was only two years old when Clotilda left the coast of what is now Benin, outlasted them both. As a reminder of how recently slavery existed in the U.S., Diouf talked to McCrear’s two living grandchildren as well as her great-granddaughter and great-great grandson. In February, McCrear’s great-granddaughter attended a presentation at National Geographic’s headquarters to learn more about the 2019 discovery of the sunken Clotilda.
Today in a minute
Not the first: Britain’s Prince Charles, who tested positive for the coronavirus, was just the latest U.K. royal to fall before a virulent virus, says Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever. Plague, smallpox, and “the Russian flu” have taken a toll on the monarchy over centuries. Civilian leadership hasn’t been spared in this latest pandemic: Prime Minister Boris Johnson also has COVID-19.
What would elders tell you? They lived through a Depression and a world war. What’s the advice of America’s oldest to people going through family isolation now? Be generous. Notice small joys. Prepare more, worry less. That’s according to Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer, who began interviewing America’s eldest for a project in 2003. “A morning cup of coffee, a warm bed on a winter night, a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio,” Pillemer advises. “Paying special attention to these ‘microlevel’ events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up daily. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well.”
We asked, you answered: So how are you managing to make it through? For reader Steve Shannon of Richmond, Virginia, it’s escaping the house and the coronavirus news to photograph birds and the blooming flowers along an uncrowded neighborhood walking trail. “I've been sending a photo a day,” he writes. Here are two. Email us your stories from self-quarantine here.
In other news: An ancient Chinese noblewoman loved donkey polo so much, she never wanted the game to end. When she died 1,150 years ago, her instructions stated that she would be interred with her beloved beasts. That’s according to Nat Geo’s Kristin Romey, reporting on new research. Why ride donkeys instead of horses? Polo matches of the era, Romey writes, “could involve high stakes and high risk, and researchers suspect donkeys were thought to be safer and sturdier than horses.”
Olympic curse? July 2021 may be when the Tokyo Olympics, canceled last week for the second time in 80 years, may take place. In 1940, Tokyo also was scheduled to host the Olympics, but in the run-up to World War II, the Games were canceled (as they were in 1944 as well). Though such cancellations are extremely rare, the Games have been subject to boycotts, bans, and even volcanic eruptions throughout its history, Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever reports.
Instagram photo of the day
I am a rock, I am an island: The tidal island of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, has ancient origins, inhabited by an Irish hermit, used for centuries as a stronghold and sanctuary for pilgrims. “I’ve been several times to this mysterious place,” says photographer Paolo Verzone, “and every time I felt its charm intact.”
See: Get a bird’s eye view of Mont Saint-Michel
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The big takeaway
Modern history: We are doing a series of stories from the first places hit hard with COVID-19, among them Italy and Iran—and soon Paris and hot spots in the United States. Separately, the novelist Francesca Melandri, approaching a month’s lockdown in Rome, offers wisdom for those shuttering themselves inside now, including:
1. You will put on weight.
2. You’ll look for online fitness training.
3. You’ll flaunt a newfound gallows humor.
4. You will make appointments in supermarket queues with your friends and lovers, so as to briefly see them in person, all the while abiding by the social distancing rules.
5. You will count all the things you do not need.
In a few words
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The last glimpse
Leave with a smile: This photo, taken during a 1930s effort by auto to retraceMarco Polo’s route to China, never fails to produce a smile from Sara Manco, our senior photo archivist. “Who doesn’t love happy kids cheesin’ for the camera holding a puppy?” Manco says, adding: “I also love that the puppy is kept warm by being tucked in the girl’s coat.” Nat Geo’s Maynard Owen Williams was part of a team driving from Beirut to Beijing.
Read: When the Silk Road met the Auto Age