As Americans are cooped up in their homes dealing with the worst pandemic in a century, we can look to the past for some comfort.

No one still living has vivid memories of the Spanish Flu that threw the world in to crisis right after the end of the Great War, but plenty of books and newspaper accounts survive.

While offering a grim look into the lives of the last generation to face a pandemic, the very fact that those accounts survive today should give us great hope.

Spanish Flu likely began in China. There’s no real way to know, but a significant portion of modern medical historians believe it started there. The virus terrorized the world from 1918 until the end of 1920.

The virus that caused the pandemic reared its ugly head again in 2009, that time known as Swine Flu.

Just like with the initial response to COVID-19, no one really worried much at first about influenza again in 1920. Dr. H. Lee Church of Ottawa, Canada, denied the very existence of the flu in 1920.

“There will be no recurrence of the influenza epidemic in this generation,” he said in a widely reported story from Jan. 28, 1920.

Then, seemingly overnight, the world was eaten up with cases.

The same January day Church was spouting nonsense, Oklahomans were going to doctors to get a prescription for whiskey as a cure for the virus. That was just a thinly veiled attempt to skirt Prohibition, but if you’ve been in a grocery or liquor store in Nacogdoches County recently, you know a lot of folks are turning to libations for some form of relief.

Charlatans and snake oil salesmen tried to hawk all sorts of patent medicines and tonics, promising that each one would guard against flu.

“To accomplish this it has been demonstrated that nothing on earth will strengthen you and build you up like Tanlac, the powerful reconstructive tonic, which contained the very elements needed to build up the system and give you fighting strength to ward off the influenza germ,” one ad masquerading as a news story said.

That again was a thinly veiled attempt to skirt prohibition. Tanlac was nothing more than a 36 proof mixture of wine, glycerin and bitter herbs.

Today the Food and Drug Administration keeps the stuff on display in its “American Chamber of Horrors” exhibit chronicling the worsts and most harmful substances ever labeled “medicine.”

Other than try to get drunk, what did our forefathers do that actually worked? Exactly what we’re doing right now — social distancing, quarantine and encouraging hand washing.

So while you find yourself lonelier and more inconvenienced than normal, read this advice The Red Cross issued in 1920 at the height of the flu pandemic. Just change the term influenza to coronavirus as you read.

“The essential idea to keep in mind with reference to influenza is that it is an infectious disease which involved the respiratory tract and that it is acquired by having direct exposure to one having influenza.

“The methods of care and prevention of this disease will become perfectly obvious to you if you understand the meaning of the previous paragraph. Since influenza attacks the respiratory tract, at a time like then when we are in danger of an epidemic, it should cause us to use every method at our disposal toward the maintenance of a perfectly healthy and vigorous respiratory tract. …

“The general resistances of the body should be at its highest point. This can be done by general hygienic and dietetic methods. Food should be property selected and taken in quantities that will fully insure proper nutrition. Proper rest should be had at night. Outside walking, exercise and sports are conductive to the general upbuilding of the vitality of the individual. Sunshine is a valuable medicine to the human body. …

“An individual with a cold should exercise every care that this infection will not be transmitted to someone else. If a cold is severe, one should voluntarily quarantine himself from other members of the family or office. Individuals with influenza should be completely quarantined. When coughing or sneezing be sure to cover the mouth or nose with a handkerchief. If possible, avoid all public conveyances. Avoid public gatherings.

“In so far as we know, there is no medicine or drug which one could take which is of value in the prevention of influenza. … At the onset of any symptoms indicating a severe cold or influenza, call your physician.”

So remember that while we in our lifetime have never faced such a trying time as this, our ancestors did. Yes some died, but humanity survived and thrived, and even when alone, we’re far more connected than anyone was in 1920.

Remain calm and follow the same advice Nacogdoches residents were given a century ago. We can make it through this — separated but together — just like they did.

Josh Edwards is managing editor of The Daily Sentinel. Email him at

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