Listener supported W NYC Studios'. Wait, U.S.. You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Jad. Hey, hey, how's it going? Good.
I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab with Dispatches six through 10. Pat Walter, senior editor, is going to start us off.
OK. OK. So you and Molly had this idea to do an episode about the 1918 flu? Mm hmm. And whenever I get into something historical, I go I go to the newspaper archives. I just I think they're so cool. You know, coronavirus is in the news everywhere. We've been talking about this on the show.
And I felt like, oh, what did this look like in 1918? But yeah. So I decided to just like go just like go to the New York Times archive and start in October, which was like the peak of the second wave of the 1918 flu. So sort of like people are talking about how things are opening up again. And like we might have a we might have a second spike of the coronavirus. And like what people are afraid of is that what happened in 1918 will happen now, which is it was pretty bad when it emerged in the winter of 1918 and the beginning of the year.
And then it kind of went away and then everyone was like, oh, it's gone and went back to normal. And that fall, it spiked. And like most of the people who died in that flu died in this second fall, I didn't know that that's I actually honestly didn't know that that's the trajectory it took.
It kind of freaked me out. Oh, yeah. Honest anyhow. Okay. Sorry.
So. Yeah. So you go to New York Times in the fall of 1918 and and I remember struggling to find the flu.
It's all we're we're one the front page of the paper on October 1st, 1918, as huge like twenty point font headline across the whole page.
Bulgaria quits the war. Turkey may follow war's fiercest fighting on Cambrai front. I don't know what these things mean. I understand we're we're one enough to know what any of this means. But it's just like all war. French advance on every front every day. British take. Many towns all fall. Turkey also seek peace. Austria seek to quit war age to page three USS Tampa battle maps. There's profiles of officers and different units. What they were doing in the war where they were killed.
Six hundred ninety two casual. You have entire articles which are just names of all the people killed. And you keep going. Page five, six, seven. Pretty much our war stories. You know, as you get into the low teens, you get the flu stories just a little brief saying like St. Louis closed its businesses or the health commissioner has decided not to close the schools, even though everyone's saying you should close the schools or like the flu is in China now.
That's the whole story. It's just like really flu in China is the story. Just that that sentence. That's it. Oh, so this is how the coverage goes.
All fall war stories, war stories, war stories.
And into my favorite example of this situation is December 20th, 1918. It's another day, another another typical day at The New York Times with no flu coverage on the front page, pretty much no flu coverage until the last page. And they're wedged in between a very fussy, long story about like who owns some cable lines. It's like a half a page funk's story. I don't even understand what it was about.
And an ad for shirt collars, which are a thing.
And is this tiny five sentence story with this headline? Six million died of influenza. Oh. And the subhead is regarded as world's greatest plague since the Black Death. So this to this five sentence story stuck in the last page of the paper says this, The Times, as medical correspondent says that it seems reasonable to believe that throughout the world, about six million persons have died from influenza and pneumonia during the last three months. It has been estimated that the war caused the death of 20 million people in four and a half years.
Thus, the correspondant points out, influenza has proved itself five times deadlier than war because in the same period at its epidemic rate, influenza would have killed one hundred million. Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the world, he says, adding that the need of a new survey of public health measures has never been more forcibly illustrated. Oh, my God. That's I, I just I just I it's just it's just that's crazy.
Yeah. Okay, so the 1918 flu is kind of famous for being forgotten.
Wasn't widely taught in schools. You won't find it written about in a lot of novels and plays.
But what I didn't realize is that it wasn't just forgotten after the fact. It was ignored in the moment as it was happening.
And there are a lot of reasons for this. I mean, you had censorship in certain countries. You had self-censorship in this country.
Journalists feeling like maybe they had to keep morale up and stay focused on the war, not to mention there wasn't much anyone felt that they could do about the flu, was even kind of familiar, came around every year and that year there was just more of it.
But on top of that, this is what I find interesting. They don't even know what it was like. Think about a couple of months ago, March coronavirus. Immediately you began to see these illustrations in the paper of the spiky ball.
My kids started drawing pictures of the spiky ball. We all had something we could visualize. Back then, they had no picture of the enemy.
They didn't even know the flu is a virus. It was truly invisible.
And yet this tiny, unseen, unspoken of force was reshaping human history in all kinds of surprising ways.
This show began with a simple question what happens afterward after this? Molly Webster, who you'll hear from later in the program, suggested, well, let's look back at what happened after that one. And that's what we're gonna do today as we enter the summer of Corona virus and look forward to the fall. We have five stories of how the invisible hand of that flu has continued to guide and shape us for the last hundred years and has left the world a very different place.
Okay, so these dispatches are a full team affair.
We're gonna start things off. Well, we start with Pat. We're gonna keep it going with reporters Ted Davis and Matt Kielty. Yes. Tonight, we talk to Remote Area.
A couple of historians I don't hear.
Can you hear camera? OK, John Berry, professor at Tulane University. And Margaret. Oh, hi.
Margaret Macmillan, professor at University of Oxford. Yeah. OK.
So if we jump in near the end of 1918, there's a cease fire. World War One is coming to an end. They're just warning, like, what's what's the general mood?
Well, there was there was this sort of mixed feeling that on the one hand in the allied countries, they'd won the war. And that at least was over. But it also left a tremendous amount of chaos. Large parts of Europe where in revolution empires were collapsing and probably nine million dead of the competence and goodness knows how many more who died of starvation or disease. So it was a lot of grief, a lot of concern about where the world was going.
But also, I think there was a real longing for some sort of better world.
And that new better world was supposed to come in the form of a peace treaty.
So January 1919, all the allied leaders come together in Paris who all were the allies.
And over one, the key ones were France, Great Britain, and then, of course, the United States in gentle is that when the present United States Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris, he entered almost as a conquering hero. Huge crowds turned out to see him because for a lot of Europeans and not just your pins, a lot of people around the world, he represented a new hope. Because for the past year, Wilson had been giving these speeches about what the war meant, the United States.
And in then he called for things like peace without victory, that there were no losers in this war. He called for the end of colonialism, imperialism. He called for the creation of this thing that had never existed before, that he was calling the League of Nations where countries could just come together to talk through their differences rather than going to war over them. It was all of this that had people calling Wilson the God of justice.
But worth mentioning that Wilson you, for him or against him, was a bit of an ass and that if you disagreed with him, he would catch you. And more importantly, he was also extremely racist.
He's not my favorite president.
I was poor, which is a whole other story, but with a lot of historical accuracy and a little bit drama this year to continue with this story.
This year, January 18th, 1919, for the to the office in the office of the French Foreign Ministry.
Thirty seven nations, 200 delegates packed into this big conference room with lots of gold and mirrors to come with this peace treaty that they would eventually send to the enemy, Germany. And at the front the room at this long table were our two main players, Woodrow Wilson. And right next to him. This short bald man with a big white mustache. The prime minister of France, George Clemenceau. He looks like Mr. Monopoly, but so was was ferocious.
His nickname was The Tiger. And unlike Wilson, he was someone who, quote, had no real interest in humanity as a whole. His sole concern was for France.
This would be a bit of a problem because Clemenceau, when it came to the enemy, Germany.
I don't think there is any question you want wanted him treated like an enemy that we are here to decide the issue of German guilt.
And ultimately, German reparations, because as the French kept on saying, we didn't start the war. Germany declared war on us.
And in the conduct of Germany is almost unexampled in human history. The damage done to France was enormous.
The French had lost more men in the war than any other country.
Everyone in France had someone who died, knew someone who died. There must be justice for the dead and wounded. Whole villages had been wiped out, towns destroyed.
And for those who have been orphaned and bereaved, he was saying someone should pay for this and it should be Germany because Germany saw fit to gratify her loss futurity by resort to war.
He essentially wanted to put the boot on Germany's neck. He didn't want Germany just to pay. He wanted payback for what Germany did. He wanted revenge.
Problem was often that Wilson wanted to go easy on Germany. It was his whole peace without victory thing. So Wilson Clemenceau that get together virtually every day privately and Woodrow Wilson studying a nice little spread in coffee and chocolate eclairs and things.
And the two of them wars would go at it. How long must we repeat history? Wilson Preaching peace and unity of war. We learn that revenge won't work. And Clemenceau, you know, history is a shocked one being just like, look, the Germans, the Germans must pay, need to be brought to their knees.
Germans are defeated and they would argue back and forth. They must not be destroyed. And back and forth.
That gentleman has ever talked to us before. Go do it again. And he'd argue about the League of Nations. We need to be just that German reparation justice. Here's where Germany Sharhan and he's negotiation justice for the people started Dré, who now Staiger under Duaa. That's which exceed 30 billion pounds in trade.
They tend not. No one seems to be paid that much, sludging. And eventually things started to get diplomatically, he just told us. After one meeting, Wilson turned to an aide and called the French, quote, damnable in another meeting you, sir.
So Caldwells and PAHO Jarmo throw a German and left the room at one point. The British prime minister, who is always in these talks, he said, I feel as I'm sitting between Napoleon and Pooky Brassfield and I am not thinking only of German.
Jesus Christ tya thinking about the future of the world business you've legally.
And this went on January. We must make peace. February Margery's no peace. Then eventually Wilson gets angry.
So much so, I want the steam engines prepared that he threatens to just leave to go back to the states on several occasions.
And Clemenceau said rather unkindly, he's like a kook who keeps the trunk ready in the hallway because Wilson can never actually bring himself to go. March Wilson told his wife, quote. Well, thank God I can still fight and I win.
A few days later, he tells an aide. We've got to make peace on the principles laid down and accepted or not make it at all. That was April 2nd.
And the next day after that. April 3rd, Wilson gets sick.
Quote, His doctor Closed-in was pleased with by one that's of coughing, which were so severe and frequent that it interfered with his breathing. Unquote. He had a fever. Fever hit one o three.
His health starts to treating so fast that his doctor thought he was poisoned because of intestinal symptoms.
Does that just mean like stomach pain and vomiting and diarrhea? Turns out all symptoms of influenza.
By this point, April 1919, millions of people have already died of the flu. There had been these three big waves in John told us. This kind of remarkable thing is that as the flu had been rampaging, Wilson had never spoken of it. Not once, not publicly.
He was focused entirely on the war. That's all we care about. And here's Wilson in Paris trying to put an end to the Great War, trying in some ways, he thought, to put an end, maybe to just like war forever. While the third wave of the flu was moving through Paris, now, whether Wilson contracted the flu. I think we'll never know. Margaret points out like we truly can't know.
It could have been. I think it was more than a cold. I mean, he really was very sick. But for John, who wrote a whole book about the 1918 flu, he's like a lot of the classic symptoms were there. Diarrhea, nausea, fever, coughing and shortness of breath. And also this one peculiar symptom, mental disorder, John said, for people who contracted the flu back then. Extremely common to be disoriented, feel restless, to become delirious.
And Wilson, do you hear them? Definitely showed those symptoms. They're right outside the door. One of Wilson's closest aides.
There's nothing we could say to disabuse his mind of the 40. You're me, sir. Who are you talking to? The home was filled with French spies.
The French also around this time, Wilson take the chairs, according to an aide, wired up acuity or notion and move them.
He was perfectly responsible straight. So for all the property in the first place, he was occupied with them in straight lines. Something queer was happening in his life. The British prime minister referred to it, end quote. Nervous and spiritual breakdown.
Clemenceau, when he got wind, his works today said to someone, Do you know his doctor? Can you get around him and bribe him?
At the same time, Wilson's doctors say these are terrible days for the president.
Wilson would be sick and in bed for about a week. But even after he recovered, one of his aides said, quote, One thing was certain.
It was never the same after this little spell of sickness. April 8th, he goes back to the peace conference, back to negotiating with Clemenceau. He's a different man. He's weaker.
Even one of his Secret Service aides noticed Wilson lacked his old quickness of grasp and tired easily, unquote.
And this is the thing is that John said after Wilson got sick, gave in on practically every point, he seemed to just fold to Clement.
So he went in with this idea to go light on Germany and came out with almost the opposite.
The final treaty called for everything Clemenceau wanted harsh reparations on Germany, a huge reduction in its military loss of a bunch of territory.
Germany was pretty much eviscerated, as Germany's foreign minister put it, quote, They could have expressed the whole thing more simply. In one clause, Germany renounces its existence, unquote.
Obviously now Wilson did end up getting his League of Nations, but Germany in the end wasn't allowed to join in. Which was pretty much a slap in the face. But some people say because Wilson got this big thing that he wanted all along. That's why he was willing to give up on everything else.
But I don't think so. What he did in caving in was so far and to everything in his personality and everything in his history, I can't prove it was the disease, but I don't see any other reasonable explanation. And after Wilson made the concessions, a whole group of his top but younger aides met and considered whether they should resign in protest. One of them wrote Wilson a blistering letter of resignation.
It came from a diplomat named William C. Bullet.
Quote, I am sorry that you did not fight our fight to the finish and that you had so little faith in the millions of men like myself and every nation who had faith in you. Our government has consented now to deliver the suffering peoples of the world to new oppressions, objections and dismemberments. A new century of war. June 28, 1919. The Germans would eventually sign what is known as the treaty of her PSI. And what happens next is something that's debated by historians.
There's some like Margaret, who say there was a real problem here and that was increasingly Germans felt they hadn't lost. There was this growing sentiment amongst Germans that they could have won the war. It was just that these liberal leaders surrendered too soon. And so if you feel you haven't lost no, treaties don't seem fair. But there are many historians who say that this treaty, the Treaty of Visi, which was so harsh on Germany, pretty much forced them into a depression.
Humiliated the German people by blaming them for the war. That that this treaty would sort of create this foundation for. The rise of the Nazis. And obviously everything that followed. The Holocaust. Pearl Harbor. D-Day. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. The deaths of upwards of 80 million people. And it's it's kind of made me think a lot about Paris, 1919, how there was this moment where you had these two important men, Wilson and Clemenceau, who would be sitting at some table in Wilson's study year, that big, long table in the conference room and argue about what the world should become after the end of this first great war.
And I keep I sort of keep imagining that, like in those rooms where Wilson and Clemenceau are sitting, that there's this other chair there, this empty chair, you know. It's over by itself. No one's paying attention to it. And I just keep thinking how it was almost as if the virus itself kind of had a seat at the table. Reporters Ted Davis and Matt Kielty. OK, so a lot of the recorded history of the 1918 flu is rather Eurocentric in this next dispatch, which comes from reporter Sakari Rintel story about how the flu gave the arc of history in this one particular individual.
A little nudge all the way on the other side of the world.
So the place where it starts kind of is it's May of 1918.
I think it's like May 29, 1918. There is a ship that docks in the port city of Bombay, now known as Mumbai. It's carrying Indian troops home from World War One. I didn't know India fought in World War One. Yeah.
Indian soldiers prepare to embark on service overseas.
India was a British colony at the time. So about a million Indian soldiers were off fighting the war for the British splendid soldiers, splendid fighters.
They will give a good account of themselves wherever they may serve.
Some of them were in like France and Belgium also. Others like the ones getting off the ship or coming from Mesopotamia, which is now Iraq anyway. So this ship, it's only there for about 48 hours.
But in those 48 hours, in addition to those soldiers, the flu also disembarks. A few days later, this one police officer that had been stationed at the dock shows up at the hospital running a fever. Then six other police officers get sick a few days later. It's a bunch of men working for a local shipping company. Then it's people working at the dockyard. The disease starts to spread through the city of Bombay. And from there throughout India.
Now, meanwhile, just north of Bombay in the state of Gujarat, there's a man that's taking the train from city to city giving speeches.
He's a lawyer, activist, big proponent of nonviolent resistance. And his name is Mohandas Gandhi.
This is him speaking much later. But just help you imagine to finish this procedure.
And the thing is, like in these speeches, he's actually recruiting people to fight in World War One for the British. Really, it's very surprising, right? I mean, Gandhi definitely had some blind spots, even like made some racist comments about black people when he was in South Africa and when it came to India, he had this idea that, like, if Indians fight for the British, then they will in return get more autonomy. To quote from some of these speeches that he gave, India has altogether lost the capacity to fight.
It has not a particle of the courage it should have. We are regarded as a cowardly people if we want to become free from that reproach. We should learn the use of art.
So for him, it was a show of strength, but it also kind of like a bargaining chip. I see. So he thought if Indians proved their strength, the British would reward them.
Yeah, something like that. So through that summer, the flu is spreading through India. Gandhi is running around giving speeches and then all of a sudden on August 17th. He writes a letter where he says, I'm on my back. Is that what he literally said? I'm on my back. That's like the letter equivalent of a text message. Like sick can't talk. Exactly. What else does he say? He says, Dear Mr. Anderson, I'm on my back.
I'm passing through the severest illness of my life. And I was incapable of sending you a letter earlier.
And he so he got the flu. Well, it's kind of unclear. Like one person I spoke to argued that it could have been the flu. Other people said it probably wasn't. We honestly can't know for sure. According to Gandy's own account, he got food poisoning from something that he ate and came down with a case of dysentery. But the thing is, it was really bad. The appetite had all gone. I had all along thought that I had an iron frame, but I found that my body had now become a lump of clay.
I have almost to crawl to reach the lavatory. And I have such griping pain that I feel like screaming. I wanted to scream all the time, but controlled the urge with great effort. I long to die and be free from it all. Well, it went on for about five months. Like approximately from August of 1918 to somewhere around January of the next year, which lines up exactly with the time of that terrible second wave of the flu in India.
And so at the exact time that Gabi was on his back. So was India like it was utter devastation. And the colonial government was basically doing nothing. The sanitary commissioner of the state of Punjab writes, The hospitals were choked so that it was impossible to remove the dead quickly enough to make room for the dying. The streets and lanes of cities were littered with dead and dying people. The postal and telegraph services were completely disorganized. The train service continued, but at all the principal stations dead and dying were being removed from the trains.
The burning cut, which is a cremation site and burial ground, were literally swamped with corpses. Whilst an even greater number awaited removal, nearly every household was lamenting a death. And everywhere, terror and confusion reigned. You know, in the US, we had about half a million people that died from the flu. In India, it was somewhere between 10 and 20 million people just in those few months. Oh, my God. Which is more than the number of soldiers that died in World War One.
Globally, like we talk about the forgotten flu. But the part that was most forgotten was what happened in India. Yeah. And Gandhi's on his back that through that whole period. Yeah. He finds out that his son and daughter in law have come down with the Spanish flu as well. His daughter in law actually ended up dying from it. Well, actually started reading through some of his letters from this time. And they're fascinating because you see him go from like writing these long screeds about politics and war fruiting to like real soul searching.
For instance, around October, so about two months into his illness, he's so sick that he starts to think that he might die. Do Huddy love? I have a feeling that I'm now going. I have very little time left. The body is becoming weaker and weaker. You start to see him kind of contemplating his own life at the inheritance of character, which I'm leaving to you is invaluable in my view. I wish you to cherish and follow the path of reelin more.
I contemplate this illness the more deeply I realize what love of man to man must be, and therefore a love of God. He's like reflecting on God and nature is God and God is love and nature and can be had this philosophy about illness where mysterious is the way karma works itself out. Any illness that you experience often is something that you've brought on to yourself.
We Rieff as we so we get what we deserve in this illness. I can see my own fault at every step because he thought that way about illness when he actually got sick.
He started to reflect what have I done to bring this on? And if you read his letters, it seems like part of that was realizing that recruiting for the war effort was misguided.
One need not assume that heroism is to be acquired only by fighting in a war. One can do so even while keeping out of it. War is one powerful means, among many others. But if it is a powerful means, it is also an evil one. But the way to have strength is not to fight for the British in a war of all things. We can cultivate manliness in a blameless way. It was to fight against them through non-violent means.
What ends up happening is he emerges from his illness. As he moves across the dusty roads of India, frail little man, and begins speaking to crowds again, the war is over. He's done recruiting. And he says now that it is not wrong to defy laws that are unfair.
We have to resist.
By this time, the British have passed a law allowing them to arrest people without really any reason. And the people of India, meanwhile, have been through all of this death and suffering and seen that the colonial government was powerless to help them or just didn't care to. So this time the crowds are much bigger. They're ready for Gandhi's message to the people. And so did the tempo of the Indian government to which the British respond by blares into open violence.
Cracking down even further, massacring hundreds of people in a city called Amritsar. And in the wake of that, Gandhi writes, It seems I shall have to fight the greatest battle of my life.
A handful of demonstrators, the marchers become a crowd and then an army, unstoppable. Gandhi's name becomes their. It's a long time before Indians actually get their independence. I think twenty eight years, to be exact. But this moment when the Spanish flu sweeps India and both India and gone the emerge from this time of extreme hardship.
I think you can say that this is the moment. Where independents really starts to take shape. Coming up, dangerous bodies, either ghost pig reservoirs and whale flu. That's right after the break.
Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a science foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.
I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. The idea for the set of dispatches is simple as we head into the summer of Corona and into the uncertainty of the next few months. We thought it was a good time to sort of look forward by looking back to the aftermath of the 1918 flu and to chart the many ways that the silent, invisible hand of that flu virus has shaped human history. This next one comes from producer Latif Nasser. All right, I'm ready.
OK. Take me on a journey like this back in time.
And and you're going back in time, Andrew. Going across the globe. Nice to Vienna. OK.
In the early 90s, hundreds. I mean, just the capital of the Austro Hungarian empire. But it's really it's like it's like one of the cultural capitals of the world. It has this, you know, great classical legacy, you know, like Mozart and Beethoven and Hofburg Palace and that kind of thing. But at this moment, you're only 19 hundreds. It's just like bursting into modernity. And there's one point in 1913 where in within about two miles in central Vienna, you could find Stalin, Trotsky, Freud and Hitler.
There would have been going to the same coffee shop.
That's crazy. Is that true? Yeah. Yeah. Oh, my God. So anyway, so. So Vienna was this place in time where it's like, wow, this has a sort of disproportionate mark on the 20th century. Right. And I want to tell you about a guy who was at that place at that time named Egen. Sheila gunshy. OK. So 19, 1987, at the time, he was a teenager. He wanted to be an artist, studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
But he found his teacher so stifling that he drops out and he decides to seek out his idol. One of the best known artisan, all of Vienna, Gustaaf Klimt.
Oh, he. He had the famous painting that there was like a woman that people put up on their dorm room.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's like she's like an gold leaf. It's called the kiss. Yes. Yeah. That's Klemp. So you have this like teenage art school dropout approaching his artistic hero who's 30 years a senior and supposedly kind of the way the story goes, Shila shows him some of his sketches. Yasim, whether he has any talent and Klemp says much too much. It's sort of monumental moment. And within a few years, Sheila skyrockets to success.
And in exhibitions like you'll find their work alongside each other. You were kidding. Now, just to give you a sense of what this guy Sheilla, what his work is like. Like this guy's not a bowl of fruit guy. He loves drawing portraits and including and especially nudes like he draws men, women, male couples, female couples himself masterbating, women masterbating. A lot of people at the time considered him a pornographer. He even gets arrested and thrown in jail at one point and then they just let him out of jail a few weeks later.
And you can see why people found some of his work unsettling, like he would be drawing his sister, like very detailed nudes of his sister, detailed nudes of like underage girls, you know, sickly people. There's a drawing he does like of the scrotum of of a newborn baby boy. Well, it's weird.
It's really weird. And one of the Shiel experts, I talked to, Varina Gompa, she was like to Sheilla painting bodies was a way of investigating the deepest questions about life and just looking at myself like you can see, like he just wanted to see people.
And the way people actually were, not the way they were supposed to look like, just the way they really actually Lutton.
So a few years later, 1915, he marries Edith Harms.
Three days after the wedding, he has to report for active duty in the Austrian military. Couple of years later, he gets reassigned back to Vienna and soon after he finds out that his mentor, Gustav Klimt, is in the hospital. Klint had a stroke, and while he's in the hospital recuperating, he contracts pneumonia.
So Sheilla goes to basically goes to see his mentor on his deathbed.
But he's too late. So instead he goes to the morgue and sits next to Clint's body and starts to sketch him like almost like a like a death mask.
You know, like it's like he's making a death mask or something like that. Like trying to freeze freeze him or something or or hold him or. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. So Klimt dies and sort of his sheilas reeling from the death of his mentor. He's actually professionally doing better than ever. The whole Vienna art scene sees him as this rock star. He buys a new, like big studio and he talks about how he was going to convert his old studio into this kind of new revolutionary, kind of like art school.
It wasn't just going to be a kind of a traditional art school, the way that he had gone to see hope that there would be these kind of cohorts of artists behind them, that he could help train the way he wished he had been trained. And besides that, his wife, Edith, she becomes pregnant. But then comes the fall when the big second wave of the flu pandemic hits. And according to the Sheilla biographer, urging Carlier, there's this family story that Edith, who is by this point six months pregnant, she decides to go out and get some groceries.
She goes downtown. And comes back with the flu. So Sheila just attends to her over the next couple of days and just has to watch as she's. You know, struggling to breathe. And as she and also, obviously their unborn child just kind of start to fade away.
And that the night before she dies, she asks for a pen and paper and writes this kind of barely legible note with super loopy handwriting, which says something like, I love you and I love you endlessly.
Edith. And Sheila, he's sort of sitting next to her. And just like he did with Klemp, he he just sketches her. So he makes this really got wrenchingly sad portrait of Edith.
You see her in the bed, Sheila biographer Jane Carlier. Her head is propped up on pillows. Her eyes are half closing, but trying to stay out of bed. You see her her fading Ray. So she died that night, so she lived through the night, she died in the morning. And then it's that same day that Sheila first starts to shiver.
Oh. So for the next three days, he lays in bed with a high fever and he dies the same day as her funeral. Yeah, he was.
He was 28. She was 25. Wow. So that's that's horrible. Like this guy who's about his life is about to just explode suddenly has these. Yeah. Three deaths in rapid succession. Wow. What do you make of that? One of the ideas that the biographer Jeanne Carlier brought up was this term that Gertrude Stein coined called The Lost Generation.
And when we hear that phrase, usually you think of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway, the the the nihilism of young people who lived through the nineteen teens.
But there's another way to read The Lost Generation, where people who were literally lost, they weren't there anymore. They were gone.
And in a way, Sheila is one of the kind of the the crystallization of that.
He's one of the clearest examples of that. Someone who was brilliant, someone who's prolific, like he he he had this sort of spark that was that was snuffed out. So that made me wonder, like, what would have what would it have been like if if they had survived, like, how would modern art, how the modern world be different? And so it's funny, like I asked these two different scholars and they had kind of the same answer, which was sort of striking.
They were like. Sheila was into drawing people, right? Was into drawing bodies. He was into drawing these human figures. But after the war, modern art in Europe moves away from figural work like human figures and then towards abstraction. And it was only relatively recently that sheilas work became in vogue again.
Wow. That's kind of. That gives me chills just thinking about what it's like for somebody who so passionately took in the human form to then in the wake of the pandemic and the war. It's just too painful to take in the human forms anymore. And so we have to look away, you know.
Yeah. That's kind of what a story. Yeah. And it does feel like between the war and the pandemic, like that whole generation must have seen the human body and such like in its most like seen it in the frailest way, in the most visceral way, like it's like, oh, I don't want to see that anymore.
Well, don't you have I mean, I remember you saying something like this. I mean, I bodies look dangerous now. I saw this picture. I was one of those like who's a Condé Nast publication that I guess had been done right before the pandemic. And it had on the cover these two millennials in embracing and kissing each other. And I remember seeing this photo and just recoiling. Then the the idea of two human bodies touching was like, oh, no.
Yes. Get away from each other.
Like there's some way in which the body like the. It's it's it's it's radioactive now. It's it's weird because there's a way in which I don't know. It's like at this moment our bodies are simultaneously they seem so dangerous and like like weapons. But then also like our bodies seem so vulnerable, like the idea that. Like someone's, you know, knee on a neck, like couldn't. Yeah. Could be that devastating. You know, like it just like you feel it.
I don't know. It's like it's like at this moment, there's these two conflicting things, like it's like bodies is so vulnerable and bodies are so dangerous.
Producer, lots of Nassr. Next up, Rachel Kucik. Okay, I am at your service. All right. Ready to be inspired and amazed?
Well, I don't know how much men inspire you because I think, you know a lot of what I'm about to say, because you are a radio man. But I appreciate you faking enthusiasm for the next 30 minutes.
I'm not going to fake it. It's sort of like, oh, my God, my heart.
I feel just scared that I mean it.
But anyhow. OK, so weird. Where would you like to launch in? Let's start in the fall of 1919. The war is over. The flu is winding down.
And we're in Pittsburgh with this guy, Frank Conrad, who had been a ham operator before the war. And once the war ends in his garage, he sets up his or resets up his amateur station.
So that's Susan Douglas, radio historian and I am a professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan.
And back then, radio broadcasts were really just Morse code, just a bunch of beeps boops. But Frank was about to change that.
He worked for Westinghouse, which was an electrical manufacturing company. So he thus had access to vacuum tubes that were used for transmission.
And all you need to know about vacuum tubes is that they were the secret bit of technology that let radio go from this to this thing that's full of life, but also in that moment in history, in the wake of the flu, weirdly made us confront death. Absolutely. So on October 17th, 1919, Frank is in his garage with these fancy vacuum tubes, and then he picks up a microphone, pushed up to a, you know, a phonograph and.
Music floated out of Frank's little garage in the air. There's no recording of this broadcast. All we know is that Frank talked a little, played some music, and about 35 miles away, all the way across Pittsburgh. Those sounds reached the ears of a little boy named Harry Mills.
I remember with ten or eleven o'clock at night and all at once. This voice appears and I remember Redding had a yell shout of some sort, and my dad, who had just gotten out of the vest, come in, wrapped in a towel, as usual. I was all right. He hadn't happened to me. And I said, Dad, look, I'm hearing his father talking. And we shared the headphones and only had one bad vote. And he allowed it.
And I was right. That one, what a moment that must have been. Can you? Suddenly, I imagine that that life that's never happened before, you didn't realize that the radio could even do that. And then his voice like, fills your bedroom. I think that's just the coolest thing ever.
It's super cool.
And other people thought it was pretty cool to. One of the Pittsburgh newspapers began reporting on this.
And once word literally got out that it was the Sky Broadcasting voice and music from his garage in Pittsburgh assoon all of these places, a tidal wave of the old time religion, religious organizations, labor union wanted to do what Frank did in his garage.
All Michigan lives up to colleges and universities, newspapers. The Boy Scouts. Everybody wanted in on this.
And at this moment, the radio you'd have in your home is really just a bunch of coils and wires and a crystal. There was this little wire and it was called the cat whisker. And you would basically move it around the crystal until you got something. And in came the world. People have been asking me for the last two days. Why put a ventriloquist on the air? The answer is why not? And frankly, if anyone hearing this as you'd move the whisker around that crystal, you were not just hearing voice and music.
You were hearing how was your hearing screeches. You were hearing static. All of this kind of atmospheric noise that was. Go ahead, please. Really creepy. It's really weird. You know, you heard all of these sounds that lived between the voices, between the everyday human world and something that stretched beyond it. And let's remember the context. By the end of World War One, between 10 and 20 million people had been killed. And then another 50 million or so were killed by the flu.
Pretty much everybody knew somebody who had died, a friend or a family member or a loved one. And they were desperate for some kind of way of coping. And so when people heard these mysterious voices on the radio. A lot of them wondered, is somebody trying to reach me? Are they okay on the other side? Is there another side? Can I communicate with the undead? Susan says this was a real moment where spiritualism took off. Riggi boards were flying off the shelves.
People did go to say, ANSYS. People thought maybe my brother or mother or cousin or whoever else I lost was out there floating around in this space called the ether, which is also where people believe the radio waves lived. And so explorations of the ether, you know, via radio might be the way in which we could connect with the dead. It's so interesting, Link. I don't think I ever would have come across these stories in any other moment in time, like in my own heart and head, and felt like any sort of sympathy for the people who wanted to believe in the spiritualists.
Like, who would go to say and buy Ouija boards. But like the moment we're living in right now where I'm speaking to you from my closet and I haven't seen anyone besides my roommate in and like the other day I was like, because I'm in an apartment with one other person and I just been talking my roommate for so long. And I was like, all right, I kind of get out of this, but there's no excuse to get out of here.
And then I was like, oh, yeah, I got a phone call with my my sibling where I got to go. And then I walked into my room and just to, like, play it off, like, I actually had a phone call. I had just like began speaking as if I was speaking to my siblings and like responding to these imaginary things that they would say, like, I imagined my sister would be talking about her baby and then my other sister would be talking about this dinner she made.
And I would respond and imagine and I must have sounded crazy and I sound crazy, but it felt so good to, like, do that. It was like it was like playing house or like make me believe. But it felt so real. And I just don't think I ever would have done it before this moment. But it just I just have this sense of empathy for those people, you know? And I'm just as crazy as they are, I guess.
Yeah. Producer Rachel Kucik. OK. Rounding things out. Molly Webster. So, so far, we've done a lot of stories about human history and human experience. But my 1918 thing was. What happened to the virus? Yeah, because, I mean, at the time, we couldn't see it, we didn't have the technology to see it. We didn't even know it was a virus. So we didn't know that much about viruses. So it really was an unseen force.
But that all changed in 1997, thanks in a big way to a guy named Johann Hultin. Johan Holtan. Yeah, he is like a legend as a science adventurer. And so basically the story goes is like Johan got very interested in trying to see if they could get a sample of the 1918 flu and learn about it. So he went to Brevig Mission Alaska, which is very, very cold place where bodies would be preserved. And there was a known flu outbreak there late in the pandemic that killed most of the village.
And so he dug down into the permafrost where there was essentially this mass grave, went into bodies, took out portions of the lungs, then sent those samples to a lab in Washington, D.C., run by this guy. Hello, Jeff Hamburger. Hey, Jeff. It's Molly Webster. How are you? Good. How are you? Dr. Jeffrey Talban Burger.
I'm a senior investigator at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Anyways, back in 1997, Jeff took those samples into the lab and he was able to kind of really see the virus itself.
So if you if you sequence all the genes of the 1918 virus, which as you did we did in my lab in the 1990s in what he saw, so to speak, was all of this genetic material called RNA.
Influenza is an RNA virus, but the RNA that makes up the genome of the influenza virus is not just on one string, one continuous strand of RNA. It's on eight separate little pieces called segments.
Really, if you can think of according to Jeff, you can think of those segments as genes. So there are eight different genes, all doing different things.
And once you have that exact sequence, it's now you can do a very careful geneology by comparing those genes to other genes and other flus from 1918 all the way up to today.
You can just follow it and you can look at how things change over time.
You can put together a very thorough row life history of this virus. Yeah, it's a crazy story. The first thing to know is that when the pandemic petered out, like around 1920 or so, the virus itself did not know. The pandemic virus never went away. It just started circulating annually, causing influenza. And as more and more people became immune to it, it basically became like the normal flu spread person to person through 1921 and 22, changing a little bit every single year enough so it wouldn't die out because of immunity.
But we're still talking about the same baseline flu that infected and killed everyone in 1918, running around dominant virus, traveling all over the world throughout the 20s and beyond, through the 1920s and 1930s, 1940s into the 1950s. And then we get to 1957.
Somehow in 1957, a dual infection occurred between the human virus that derived from 1918 and an unknown bird virus.
With this, there's this there's a million now, there's two viruses, right? It's a doorstep to a cell. Yes, yes.
And because they're both flu viruses, they both have those eight gene segments, which means they could mix and match those genes, create a new virus. It's like a plug and play or something. Yeah. Think of a Lego blocks. You can put them together in different ways. As long as you have a complete set. So these two viruses end up swapping their genes. And the 1918 virus ends up with three new genes. Now, two of those genes make very important proteins.
The two major proteins that are sticking out on the surface of the virus, like the little spikes that stick out from membrane around the virus.
Those two proteins are abbreviated H and N.. So the 1918 virus was H1N1. And when it bumped into this other virus, it got a new H.
And a new when that happened, what you had was a new virus that had all the core machinery that had already been adapted to humans of the 1918 virus. But it now had proteins on the surface that nobody had immunity to. And so it could cause a new pandemic after almost 40 years of, you know, being the regular old flu and making people sick. But like, not that sick. In 1957, Oveson, there was a new version of this virus, H2, N2 virus, and thinks that new H and N.
It killed over a million people worldwide and over hundred thousand in the U.S..
And it certainly is a serial killer. They went and changed its clothes or something. Yeah, exactly. But, you know, the core of the virus was still derived from 1918. And then the crazy thing is that just 11 years later, 1968, that 1957 virus interacted in some way somehow with another bird virus.
Did the gene swapping thing again got itself a new age?
And that became a three way. But the end two from 1957 stayed the same way that the basyouni from.
Yes, go ahead. Sorry.
Oh, it's five genes from the 1918 virus, two teams from the 1968 virus and one gene from the 1967 virus. And then in 1977, the H1N1 virus. All eight genes from the 1918 virus that stopped circulating in 1957 came back into human circulation. No, 20 years later. Yes. Wow. And that H1N1 virus CO circulated with the H3 enterovirus so that we had two different strains competing with each other for annual flu seasons. And. And then that circulated until they were replaced by a new pandemic that had a really complicated and mixed up origin and relation to 1918.
OK. So to understand this next part, you have to know that most flus come from birds and they go into us, but they can go into other animals, to horses or dogs, whales and seals and camels and bats that have flutes.
That whale who they probably all have a whale's influenza viruses are in there.
The reason that that matters is it turns out that way back at the beginning of our story, the 1918 virus most likely went from humans to pigs in 1918. And then the virus adapted to pigs and made a pig specific lineage of the 1918 virus that became swine influenza. Oh, my God.
And so the human strain of 1918 goes off and it goes through the 20s, in the 30s, in the 40s, in the 50s and onwards and onwards. Well, the pig strain is doing the same thing. It's going through the piggy 1920s it and the Peggie 1930s and Peggy 1940s. And it's doing little changes along the way. And at some point, they give it back to us.
In a complex set of swapping genes between human viruses, pig viruses and bird viruses, a new virus was created that has some of the genes from the 1918 virus, but some are derived from its human descendants. Two of them are derived from its swine flu descendants. And then a couple other genes from a bird virus. And that led to a new H1N1 virus in 2009. This is why.
I know. But pig detour aside, I think the thing that was crazy about what Jeff told me is that the that that virus, the one that had the backbone of 1918, the one in 1968, the 1968 H3 into virus, became the dominant form of influenza.
And it's still the dominant form of influenza today, really more than 50 years later.
Does that mean that like the flu I might have gotten this past winter is built on the backbone of the 1918 strain?
It absolutely is. And, you know, here's the thing. I think that's important to think about. If our data are correct, that a single transmission event from a bird virus to humans, say, just before 1918, that led to the emergence of this new pandemic virus. Not only the tens of millions of people who died in the pandemic itself estimated at least between 50 and maybe even 100 million people, but that the tens of millions of people who have died of influenza in the last hundred and two years are all directly related to a single event in which a bird virus adapted to humans sometime before 1918.
And no one really knows when, like a human, you know, touched some bird poop and scratched their nose or eaten infected chicken or like hugged a turkey or something. And this virus went from that bird, snuck into that human. And from there, it went from human to human to human to human to human, to human, to human every day of every year for the last 102 years.
So the 1918 virus is ultimately responsible. All the flu deaths that have occurred in 100 years, which is stunning to think about. So the pandemic never finished in a way. Right. It does also make you wonder. I mean, like here we are with the Corona virus six months in. Like, are we at the start? Some crazy 102 year journey with this virus. Hello. Hi.
So we actually called up the best person we think of to answer that question. OK. Dr. Foushee, such an honor to talk to you here. Really? Dr. Anthony Fauci, who probably at this point doesn't need an introduction. But when we got him on the line, we told him what we had learned about the 1918 virus, formed several times into smaller pandemics, stretching all the way into this. And then we just asked him, do you see that sort of legacy stretching forward for covered 19 like in 100 years?
Are we going to look back on it the way we look back on 1918 now?
Yeah. You know, it is conceivable, but an unpredictable and not inevitable. So so Koban, 19, is a brand new virus. It doesn't have the reassortment capabilities that the flu has. It doesn't have gene segments that would allow for what we call easy reassortment.
The first thing he told us is that the corona virus doesn't have those eight segments that the flu viruses have. So it can't do that same swapping of parts.
All those genetic shenanigans, as it were. But on the other hand, the rotavirus, it certainly has the capability of mutate so we could change culture.
So I guess the question people are asking, is it conceivable that with this particular corona virus that we're going to see versions of this as the years go by? You can never predict with certainty. But what I think we'll see over the years is that we will either control it very well with a vaccine, which I do hope is the most likely option, or it will go through a couple of cycles of seasons and then will take its place at a low level threat, something that's present that can be dealt with that it doesn't, you know, impact us in a way that it's impacted now.
Gotcha. Gotcha. So I guess that's comforting to hear. I mean, the best case scenario being that we see a couple of cycles of this and then a vaccine kind of tempers it and gently guides it into something of a low level. Right. Yeah, something of a seasonal variety. What's the worst case scenario that keeps you up at night? Well, I have to tell you the worst case scenario that keeps me up at night. I'm living through right now.
A brand new virus that jumps species, infects humans and has the combined capability of spreading extremely rapidly from human to human. At the same time as it has a relatively high degree of morbidity and mortality. And that's exactly what we're in right now. Literally the perfect storm of a pandemic, which is the reason why, unlike other pandemics of different years, with the exception of 1918, which has some serious, significant similarities, we have an epidemic that has essentially gripped the planet.
So this is indeed an unprecedented situation. We've not been here before. Certainly no one in our generation's. You know, this whole show, I feel like, you know, it started because of a conversation you and I were having about. What would it be like to emerge from this covered 19 era? OK. Let's look back. Let's look back in 1918 and see what happened in the years after that. And in doing that, we found all of these tendrils, artistic, technological, social things that reached out not just past 1918, but all the way to now.
And it just it just makes me feel like the way in which we think about the rulers of our histories, just not to rulers. It's like somehow we are not the masters of our destiny in the way that we think. It is interesting because it's like the things. That catch our eye are not always the things that define us. Yeah, that's a better way to put it. Yeah. Yes. OK. Very special, thanks for these dispatches to Verena, Gompert, Rush, Mohan Gandhi, Siddharth Chandra, David Arnold, Laura Spinney, Simon futurist who played the role of George Clemenceau, our own David Gable, who played the role of Woodrow Wilson.
Dan Fink for casting. And also the National Film Board of Canada for use of the film based on the book by Margaret Macmillan, Paris, 1919.
OK, I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening. Please stay safe, everybody.
This is Tim Scammon from New Maryland in New Brunswick, Canada, Radiolab is created by Jad Boomeranged with Robert Krulwich and produced by Sean Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our director of Sound Design. Susie Luxemburg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becker Bressler, Rachel Kucik, David Gabal, Bethel Hachey, Tracy Hinds, Matt Kielty, any McEuen, but Chief Nassr, Sarah Khiry, Ariane Wacks, Pat Walters and Molly Webster with help from Sheila O'Leary, W Harry Fortuna, Sarah Stanback, Melissa O'Donnell, Ty Davis and Russell Gregg.
Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.