Alumna Nikki Brueggeman (’13) reflects on how the field she loves can help us through the pandemic and beyond.
After college and graduate school, I wandered away from studying history. My life became filled with employment, relationships, and other distractions. My history books sat on shelves, ignored. Then, a virus began to spread across the world, and I found myself reaching for my books once again.
It is through this study of history, and specifically the study of the 1918 influenza pandemic, that I am finding hope. Through reading stories and articles, and finding connections, I am learning how similar our contemporary experiences are to those of the past. History has returned to my life, imparting valuable lessons in a time of coronavirus.
History is a reminder that you are not alone, and that bad times do not last forever.
As the COVID-19 pandemic trudged on, I began wondering how we could survive as a society. How do you survive when hundreds of people die in one day? I found myself curious how those in 1918 had managed the isolation, stress, and sorrow of a new virus. It was to my home of the Pacific Northwest that I looked for camaraderie. And I found it.
The first influenza cases in Washington state appeared in fall 1918, resulting in the city of Seattle locking down to contain the virus. In a Seattle Star article dated October 5, 1918, state Commissioner of Health T.D. Tuttle begged residents to use caution. After listing familiar recommendations like avoiding public gatherings and staying home if symptoms developed, the commissioner wrote, “We are asking you as a patriotic service to actually go into quarantine and stay there until all danger of spreading the disease is passed.” Tuttle’s words were similar to pleas I’d heard from Dr. Anthony Fauci, begging people to practice social distancing. It was not in medical advice that the familiarity ended. Parallels between 1918 and 2020 began to seep out of everything, especially when I found survivors’ stories from around the country.
In 1998, American Experience aired interviews with those who lived through the 1918 pandemic. Their stories were heartbreaking. Survivor Anna Milani recalled, “In the street, there were crepes [ribbons] at the door. If it was a young person they put a white crepe at the door; if it was a middle-aged they put a black and if it was an elderly one, much older, they put a grey crepe at the door, signifying who died.” Like those in 1918, death announcements have become part of our daily experience.
For COVID-19, we do not use traditional crepes. We use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to inform the world of our loss. Every day, it seems there is a new post announcing the death of a loved one, with people from around the world reaching out to offer comfort from places of isolation. Meanwhile, we all hope that it will never be our turn to post a digital crepe.
After reading primary sources like newspapers and interviews, the past does not seem so historic. Like us, people in 1918 self-quarantined, wore masks, and cancelled important life events to protect others. However, there was another important side to my journey through the 1918 pandemic that put everything into perspective: it ended. At some point, the fevers broke, the morgues stopped being overrun, and people left their houses. As Melissa Nicolas reminded me, after the pandemic came the roaring ’20s.
“I think there’s comfort in knowing that there was a pandemic in 1918 … and the nation recovered. The nation found a way to make it through, they did come together,” says Nicolas, associate professor of English at Washington State University, who is researching the 1918 pandemic. “I think if we had a better sense of our history … we might not feel so desperate.”
It’s hard to feel hopeful when you gaze at death daily. When news broke that over 3,000 people died in one day, I felt something in my soul die and a certain innocence about good triumphing vanished. It was in moments like this that the stories of 1918 resonated the loudest. Survival does not mean moving on and forgetting, it means carrying the burden of memory. Those that survived influenza did not forget the pain and trauma, but they found ways of balancing it in their lives. And we will too. That’s what makes the preservation of COVID-19 memories essential.
History reminds us to learn from the present and to ensure future generations do not forget. During the pandemic, I became an oral historian, preserving the stories of my communities so we would not go unrecorded. These stories will be housed at WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, so future generations can listen to the tales. When the world has gone mad, one of the hopes to cling to is that those who come after you will learn from your experiences.
“I hope that we’ll learn from the outrageous number of deaths that have occurred here, so that this doesn’t happen again, so the next time there’s a pandemic that Americans are more prepared,” says Matthew Sutton, chair of WSU’s history department. “I hope that Americans can figure out a way to have forthright discussions about science, health, and policy, where everybody at least begins with some of the same facts.” Sutton is right, but for people to learn, we must protect these memories.
You and I carry the responsibility of telling future generations the story of COVID-19. We must take it upon ourselves to save newspapers, letters, journals, and photographs, assuring that they are passed down to those who will only know COVID-19 through history books. What we tell future generations about these days will fill in the gap that history education may miss. Those personal stories and insights are crucial. For many generations, history has centered the experiences of wealthy, straight, White men. It is the reason you know the name President George Washington, but are unaware of George Washington, the Black founder of Centralia, Washington. We do not tell stories like yours: the story of the accountant, the stay-at-home mom, the small business owner, or the high school teacher. With this pandemic, that must change.
As we think about the lessons to take from the COVID-19 pandemic, I implore you to inventory your experiences. Think about what you will tell your children, nieces, nephews, students, or younger coworkers. Remember your story: how you stayed inside for a year, how you had a wardrobe of masks, how you processed the news, and how you kept hope alive. Remember your story of surviving the pandemic.
For me, I find strength thinking about what I will tell young people. I hope they will listen and be proactive in ways we were not. Over the past year, my return to history has taught me the importance of gazing behind me for comfort and strength. With a bit of luck, those born in the coming years will do the same.
By Nikki Brueggeman for Washington State Magazine