I read “The Pandemic We Forgot,” Scott Hershberger's article on the 1918 influenza pandemic, and noted your call for stories at the end of the online version about ancestors who experienced it.
Among the 675,000 people in the U.S. who lost their lives 102 years ago were nearly all of my great-grandmother's immediate family. Both of her parents and a brother died. Her first husband and their one-year-old daughter died the same day in October 1918 and were buried together in the same coffin. At the age of only 22, she was pregnant with her second child, a son who would never know his father. She also had to raise her younger siblings who survived.
This happened in Oklahoma, a state that is currently dealing with spikes of COVID-19 and very sporadic mask compliance—with no statewide mandate in place. It's demoralizing that a century after the 1918 pandemic, I have to ask: What have we learned?
SHANNON LEIGH O'NEIL via e-mail
The collective “forgetting” of the 1918 pandemic Hershberger describes rang true for me and my family. My 91-year-old grandmother told me that her father (my great-grandfather, Georg Monsen) survived the pandemic but that his older brother, the older brother's wife and their two kids all died of it. I've been alive for four decades and am close to my grandmother, but I never heard any of this history until now. Plus, she said that her father had hearing loss for the rest of his life because of the effects of that flu, as did other members of the family who had it but survived. This all took place in western Norway, where my grandmother is originally from.
TABITHA GRACE MALLORY
Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington
My grandfather died in the second wave of the pandemic on September 24, 1918. He was 26 and otherwise very healthy. My grandmother was deeply affected by his death, and she always seemed to believe that she could have done more to save him. This made her deeply anxious about the health of everyone in the family and especially me, as I was given his name. I always hid any cold that I had from her. In lots of ways, my grandfather's death reverberated through the generations. His name was Samuel Rubinson, born August 15, 1892.
SAMUEL GUTTENPLAN Professor emeritus of philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London
Regarding the lack of collective memory, I had the same question when I heard of the pandemic and discovered my grandmother had died during it. It was the only family story ever told about her. Gone at 38, leaving five small children. My father was nine years old. My 2010 book Influenza and Inequality: One Town's Tragic Response to the Great Epidemic of 1918 covers the epidemic in one small town: Norwood, Mass. It has dozens of personal stories from survivors, families and descendants.
I believe that this lack of collective memory is linked in large part to the population of victims: the majority were young, foreign-born and poor. Like today, those who could afford to stay home and avoid infection were the privileged. Then, as now, it was marginal communities—those who lived and worked in hazardous environments and lacked medical access—who were struck down. Who was going to memorialize young poor immigrants? Let us hope today's victims will not be so invisible and easily forgotten.
PATRICIA J. FANNING Professor emeritus of sociology, Bridgewater State University
My dad would have been about 16 years old when the 1918 influenza both took his own father's life and sickened him. I was a child when he told me that, as the disease faded, “all [his] hair fell out.” In 1920 my father—with, by then, an abundant resupply of hair—entered the U.S. Naval Academy. No doubt at least some of his classmates were also influenza survivors. I'm inclined to believe that in the process of bonding with one another, they would have shared their “collective memories” of experiencing “the flu.”
At age 75, I'm at the tail end of those who were spared by vaccination from the terrible scourges of smallpox, tetanus and diphtheria. But we had to risk the complications of illnesses now rarely seen in the developed world: measles, rubella, chicken pox, mumps, polio. Such experiences have certainly generated moments of collective memory.
ELIZABETH R. HATCHER Topeka, Kan.
EDITORS' NOTE: Read unabridged versions of these letters and several others about people whose ancestors were affected by the 1918 flu pandemic at www.scientificamerican.com/1918-pandemic-letters
SPACE WAR TRASH
In “Orbital Aggression,” Ann Finkbeiner discusses options for avoiding conflicts in space. But she does not address the question of whether any such space war would be inherently self-defeating. Even if a war in Earth orbit was entirely one-sided, with the “enemy” not retaliating, the creation of large amounts of new orbiting debris from deliberate satellite destruction could become self-propagating. An attacker could find access to orbital space denied to all countries, including itself, because of an ever escalating cascade of debris-satellite collisions—making any space war a mutual-assured destruction of the orbital environment.
MARK PROTSIK San Jose, Calif.
In “Scientists: Use Common Sense” [Observatory], Naomi Oreskes criticizes the World Health Organization for initially advising people not to wear masks in response to COVID-19 in April. She gives two reasons the WHO did so: (1) A medical mask shortage would result for critical care workers. (2) Masks would give people a false sense of security. I concur with Oreskes in rejecting 2. But 1 was a powerful argument at the time. If an N95 mask manufacturer could get a higher price from pharmacies or other customers than it could from hospitals, what does she think would have happened?
Fortunately, the problem was solved—at least here in Los Angeles County, where our local officials wisely recognized that wearing any mask, even a simple cloth one, would help and organized local garment manufacturers to turn them out. Yet at present, with the start of the third wave and companies openly selling N95 masks to the public, we might be back in trouble again. I hope this doesn't happen. But I also note that a responsible U.S. federal government could have prevented it.
D. S. BURNETT California Institute of Technology
DATA AND DECEPTION
Your recent editions have had a number of articles about misinformation. I would like to introduce the notion that data precede information, whether it constitutes misinformation or not. As any scientist can attest, there are good and bad data. Good data are obtained by careful control of conditions and demonstration of reproducibility. Bad data can arise from sloppiness, confirmation bias or intentional falsification. Information of any kind arises from analyzing data; misinformation arises from bad data or a distorted analysis of good data.
There are an enormous number of sources of intentionally bad data created to entrap people. How can our society step back from the edge? Science in the U.S. is taught as a series of facts to be accepted unquestioningly. Instead children need to be taught the clear, critical thinking that underlies the scientific enterprise. Many of the most egregious bits of misinformation are, on inspection, stupid. Far too many Americans have no capacity to identify “stupid.”
ARTHUR MOSS Wilmington, Del.