by Gina Malczewski

Those of us living in central Michigan in 2020 are struggling through what we believe are unprecedented times with challenges that began with COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2; the “Chinese virus”).  A little more than a century ago, however, our forebears were dealing with the “Spanish flu” without benefit of antibiotics, immunizations, or advice from public health experts. 

The source of the 1918 flu epidemic is uncertain.  It occurred during WWI, with soldiers moving across Europe in large groups providing an efficient means of transmission—as their training facilities in the United States also suffered outbreaks that spread to the general population. After Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan, was quarantined in late September 1918, cases rose from 557 to 2000 in one day, and deaths from 20 to 169 in one week.  Nurses left our area to help in Battle Creek, leaving mid-Michiganders with limited health care. Cases began to skyrocket in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan (UM) among the Student Army Training Corps. A “lockdown” of sorts was enacted, banning gatherings at churches and theatres—and volunteers were recruited to nurse the sick. 

William Hale, one of the founders of Midland ACS, was teaching at UM; two of his chemistry colleagues had perished from the flu by October 12th. Helen, Hale’s wife and H.H. Dow’s daughter, was suffering symptoms the following day, and a call was placed to Midland.  Grace Dow secured a nurse and the two were driven to Ann Arbor, but they arrived on October 16th only a few hours before Helen died at age 24. Dow’s other young daughters also had mild cases of flu but survived.  In 1918, as in 2020, school schedules were disrupted or halted.  Midland itself had 200 cases by November (1.5% of the population), but the local newspaper suggested that working with chemicals had saved many of the town’s residents. Midland ACS was chartered in December 1919.

The 1918 flu was not the typical seasonal variety.  The most vulnerable group were those age 15-34 (for COVID, persons over 50 are most at risk), and many died within 24 hours of infection.  The strain of virus responsible was a new one, but unlike COVID -19, its pedigree took 80 years to determine. Virus structure information, obtained through chemical and biological analyses, is key to designing a vaccine.

Two victims of the Spanish flu who died almost 4000 miles apart had important roles in this process. Of the 80 adults living in Brevig Mission, Alaska, in November 1918, 72 died within 5 days; victims were hastily buried in a mass grave.  In 1951, John Hultin, a Swedish microbiologist, obtained permission to dig through the permafrost at the gravesite, to find preserved lung tissue from which he could attempt to isolate the virus. He was successful in obtaining and preserving a sample from the remains of a young girl, but the technology of the day prevented him from successfully amplifying and studying the virus.  In 1997, Hultin read a paper by Jeffery Taubenberger, whose team characterized incomplete viral genetic material from lung tissue preserved after the death of a 21-year-old serviceman at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in 1918. After conferring with Taubenberger, Hultin headed back to the Brevig Mission gravesite and dug again for a new sample.  The lung tissue he retrieved from a woman he called “Lucy” provided the material needed to establish the rest of the virus’ genetic sequence. Spanish flu was found to be a strain of H1N1.  In 2020, Chinese scientists shared the sequence of the Covid-19 virus with the world at the beginning of the pandemic—a speedy and uneventful effort.

The Spanish flu did not subside until the summer of 1919, after about 675,000 Americans had died (500 million worldwide.) The 1918-1919 outbreak was Michigan’s deadliest year, with 15,000 flu victims (equivalent to 50,000 today.) The flu was so destructive that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, life expectancy in the United States decreased by about 12 years, to 36.6 years for men and 42.2 years for women, over the period 1917-1918. At this writing in 2020, there have been 1003 Covid cases in Midland (1.2%) and 13 deaths attributed to the virus, even as 231,344 have succumbed across the United States.

We still await the departure of Covid-19.  Hopefully with new and innovative therapeutics (from chemists), increasingly effective treatments and eventually a vaccine, the run of the virus will be much shorter than that of the Spanish flu. In the meantime, Midland ACS has remained active, trying to assist parents, students and educators. Video demos and Zoom seminars were recorded for Earth Day in the spring, and a K-12 virtual illustrated poem contest was conducted with the theme “Protecting our Planet through Chemistry.”  A free virtual STEM camp for was sponsored for 30 middle schoolers by ACS and Michigan State University in July, and all produce from the ACS garden (as well as in-kind donations) was again given to local food pantries.  Socially-distanced in-person events in October 2020 will celebrate National Chemistry Week (ACS theme: Sticking with Chemistry). Check our main website ( for more information, and links to digital content.

References (all accessed November, 2020):

Contingent of Midland men marching down Main Street before leaving for Camp Custer in 1918. Photo Courtesy of the Midland County Historical Photograph Collection, Midland County Historical Society.
Helen Dow and Billy Hale, 1916.
Photo courtesy of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation