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The Spanish Flu Epidemic in Latvia

Most of you are probably familiar with the Spanish flu epidemic that ravaged the world from the beginning of 1918 to the end of 1920 and killed somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of the world’s population. But do you know how the epidemic took place in Latvia?

Since my great-great-grandmother Dorotea Matilde Francis (maiden name Plūme) was one of its victims, I decided to find out. She died on October 18, 1918, so I decided to consult the newspapers from around that time period to see what was happening. Now, of course, wartime censorship influenced how it was reported, but it can give a glimpse of what the general attitudes towards the illness were at the time. As if the First World War, Russian Civil War and Latvian War of Independence wasn’t enough! But I’m hoping that the utter chaos of this time period in Latvia meant that, maybe, the newspapers were reporting more honestly than they were elsewhere.

The Spanish flu appears to have started in Latvia sometime in the middle of the summer of 1918. Still at the beginning of October, there did not appear to be panic. While deaths were happening overseas, newspapers did not report any in Latvia just yet. They knew what it was, but containment did not seem to be on anyone’s minds.

It is being reported by a number of places that the Spanish flu is raging throughout the Vidzeme countryside. In Smiltene, for example, a performace of the National Theatre was postponed from last Sunday because of the illness. From Lubāna we’ve heard news that schools have been closed for an unspecified time. No deaths have been reported. – Līdums, October 9, 1918

My great-great-great-grandmother lived in the region south of Limbaži. A week before her death, the newspapers were concerned about the epidemic, but still not mentioning any deaths:

From Limbaži regarding the epidemic. In the last few days, the Spanish flu has spread rapidly in the city and has taken on epidemic proportions. Signs of the illness: Strong headaches and sore throat, tiredness and high temperature, and in some cases bleeding from the nose. The illness is particularly virulent amongst students: only 25 of 150 students at the boys’ high school are healthy; and only 16 of 180 students at the girls’ high school are healthy. Now both schools are closed for a week. No deaths have been reported. – Līdums, 12.10.1918

Now the day before her death, the newspapers take on more of an alarmist tone. I wonder if she ever saw this paper, or if she had died before it reached her home.

It can be said that the Spanish flu has taken over all of Latvia. It is raging in cities and in the countryside. In the countryside there are whole parishes where everyone is lying sick in bed. There is no one to take care of the animals. Doctors, however many there are in the countryside, are constantly on the move, day and night, to visit the worst cases. The effect of the illness is not the same in all parishes. There are parishes where the illness passes quickly, while there are others where many are dying. In this latter group, in Cēsis region, we find Kārzdaba, Kalsnava-Vietalva and other districts. Children are recovering quickly, but adults are dying. And not only the elderly, but strong young people. There are situations where a strong person has died in just a few days. This is explained by the fact that adults do not take the flu seriously, but rather when the fever has broken, return to work immediately. Then they get a cold and the illness becomes pneumonia, and then they die. Therefore it is important to take the time needed to get over the illness, and staying in bed is most important.

In the countryside, this illness is particularly troublesome, since now is the time when fields need to be plowed.

In the schools, hundreds of schoolchildren would get sick in one day’s time, so schools needed to be closed. Just one sick person at a public event can also cause the illness to spread in all directions. – Līdums, October 17, 1918

Doroteja was 53 years old when she died. Was she considered a “young and strong person”? Probably not. By this time, she had had nine children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. She was a grandmother. I have yet to get to this point in Alīse’s diary, but you will see it when I do. She did write about her mother’s death, but I still have to translate the surrounding entries. Other family members also had the Spanish flu, but survived.

After her death, there are more newspaper reports from all over Latvia, including growing numbers of deaths:

Due to the Spanish flu, as can be seen from Rīga papers, even the delivery of newspapers is suffering. This shows how much this plague is spreading. – Līdums, October 18, 1918

From Liepāja. Since many children are now ill with measles or Spanish flu, the city school chairman has extended holidays in all Liepāja schools to October 31, on recommendation from the region’s doctors. Now classes will begin on November 1. – Dzimtenes Ziņas, October 24, 1918

The number of people suffering from the Spanish flu in Rīga, as reported by the “Rigasche Zeitung” has greatly multiplied. According to the statistics reported by doctors last week, there were 403 cases. The previous week, from October 6 to 12, there were only 74. It is understood that there are still thousands that the doctors do not know about, so it can be safely said that the illness has grown by six times or more. – Dzimtenes Ziņas, October 26, 1918

The Spanish flu epidemic, as reported by “Baltijas Ziņas”, has not stopped, but it is spreading and creating more victims. Deaths from this plague are growing and so people need to be very careful. The sick should not leave their beds and need to get help from a doctor immediately. – Dzimtenes Ziņas, October 30, 1918

These reports continue into November. The parishes mentioned in these articles are near to Nabe parish, where Doroteja and her family lived.

Umurga congregation. The Spanish flu is spreading terribly here, claiming many victims. People are lying everywhere as if in a hospital, since there are not many places that can help the sick, nor are there people to feed the animals. Autumn work is being delayed or missed, many things are left undone, and so there are many material losses as well. In many homes 2 or 3 people have died. On the Peri farm in Vainiži, 7 people (adults and children) have died; in many families the flu has killed 2 or 3 people. Few people are turning to doctors, maybe that is why the death rate is so high. All of the schools are closed. – Līdums, November 21, 1918

The new Spanish illness – flu – has been raging in Lielstraupe parish for a number of months. Even though a long time has passed, the illness is not abating, but is spreading more widely. There’s barely a person who has not suffered from this illness, excepting a few elderly people. In some houses, everyone got sick at once, so neighbours had to come to take care of animals. Many have also died from this illness and death is most common amongst those who are young and strong – as if this illness seeks them out. On some days, there are seven funerals in the Straupe cemetery. Because of this illness, the school year in the local schools was delayed. Not only has this illness affected Lielstraupe parish, but it is also raging in Sigulda, Turaida, Lēdurga and Mazstraupe parishes, as well as in Limbaži and Cēsis. – Baltijas Ziņas, November 25, 1918

In this last article, it is interesting to note the mention that some elderly people are not suffering from the illness. It has been posited that they may have had partial immunity due to exposure to the Russian flu that had struck almost 30 years earlier. While this may have been the case for some, clearly this was not the case for Doroteja, since even if she did have exposure to the earlier strain, it did not help her in this case.

Did anyone in your family die in the Spanish flu outbreak? Do you know their story? Share in comments!

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