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History reveals small towns’ solidarity during 1918 flu pandemic

Sep 12, 2020

An image printed in the Dansville Express in December 1918 shows the psychological toll that the 1918 influenza epidemic had on society.
Credit Provided by David Pomplas

Historian David Pomplas’ fascination with the 1918 pandemic was fueled by letters passed down through his family from his great-grandmother, Katherine Brookins Hinman from the village of Dansville in Livingston County.

In one letter, Hinman’s husband -- who had lost his mother and brother to the 1918 influenza -- wrote that he was leaving Dansville because “pretty soon everybody's going to be dead.”

Pomplas said such letters, along with newspaper accounts, echo the anguish that families endured as the infection tore through rural western New York. He said they also included the type of martial language that was used to describe World War I, describing the flu as an "outside invader" that citizens had to combat together.

Pomplas wrote his master’s thesis on the impact of the 1918 health crisis in small towns across western New York. In rural areas around Rochester, he found, health officials found powerful advocates among the clergy.

Faith-based leaders -- church leaders and pastors -- framed the epidemic in religious terms and argued in favor of quarantining.

"If you were quarantining or following health guidelines, you're not only saving your life, but you're saving other people's lives, which means you are doing 'God's work,' ” Pomplas said.

Furthermore, quarantining in 1918 was promoted as a chance to strengthen the family unit, become closer, and practice one’s faith together. 

In rural areas, social distancing worked. Survival rates went up and the infection rates went down.

But the Dansville newspaper published an ominous graphic when a second wave of infections hit in the winter of 1918.

"It's the Grim Reaper and he's holding the calendar, and he's switching the year from 1918 to 1919," Pomplas said. “You can tell that it really started to take a psychological toll on people.”

Pomplas earned a bachelor's degree with a dual major in American history and political science from SUNY Empire State College, a master's degree in American history from SUNY Brockport, and a second master's in social and public policy from SUNY Empire State College. He’s currently a doctoral student in adult and career education at Valdosta State University. Read his paper, "The Grim Reaper Visited: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Rural Western New York” below. 

Pomplas: 1918 Flu Pandemic by WXXI News on Scribd