No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Friday, October 9, 2009

Flu Epidemic of 1918

Shoreline of Bristol Bay; I grew up Commercial Fishing for Salmon in this Area

My mother's family is from the Bristol Bay region of Alaska, on the Western Coast. I was fortunate enough to grow up with my great grandparents, who survived the Flu Pandemic of 1918. Both of my great grandparents lost most of their families during the crisis, and as a result were raised by people other than their parents.

My great grandfather had horrifying stories of how people he knew died. His uncle got up to go outside, stopped at the door to say something, and instead started bleeding from the mouth and fell over dead. Later my own great grandfather lay in bed for days with another family member dead in the bed next to him. He was too ill to get up and move the body. He said he expected himself to die too and then "some man" came into the house, put medicine into my great grandfather's mouth, and left. My great grandfather recovered within a few days.

The Anchorage Daily News has a brief story with more stories about the reality of the flu epidemic in the Bristol Bay region. It was one of the hardest hit areas in the world. Considering that, it's a small miracle that myself and my daughter are even alive. I'm grateful.

My friend Marcus did his Master's thesis on commercial salmon fishing in the Bristol Bay region and ended up reading numerous documents from the canneries of the area. The reality of the situation is that the canneries were more responsible for saving the remaining people in the area than the U.S. government was. Alaska was not yet a state and the government did little to intervene. What they did do to help was largely uneffective. The cannery managers, on the other hand, arrived via barge ship in the Spring to discover many communities entirely dead. They immediately turned the ships around to gather medical supplies and flu treatments from the continental United States. They then returned and helped those that were still alive recover. The salmon fishing season was essentially a loss that season but the canneries helped save people to continue in the area. My family descends from this history.

Below is the link to the article on the flu epidemic in the Bristol Bay region.


  1. this is an amazing story, especially given that hundreds of ppl were dying and entire communities were wiped out when it seems as though there were remedies for this strain of flu - it just wasn't available for these huge numbers of people, and that's such a tragedy.

  2. well, the problem in the bristol bay situation was that it was utterly remote. there was no air travel into the area at the time, and barges really only went up in spring. so no one knew that people there were dying. when the canneries went up to the area for their standard summertime fishing preparations they discovered entire villages simply dead. they immediately turned the ships around, got flu remedies, and then went back and saved a lot of people. so, flu remedies were available, but not to these areas until after it was too late for many places.