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Why I Wear a Mask

The sign of the times in the 1920s and 30s.

See if these phrases sound familiar:

  • “There is no vaccine. Prevention is by frequent handwashing, not sharing personal items and staying away from other people when sick.”
  • “It was thought that the disease could be spread through the innocent kiss between a mother and child, neither showing symptoms more serious than a sore throat, yet a “kiss of death” harbouring and unknowingly spreading “the strangler.”

You might think these are unique times, that we are in a “special” place in history, that we must learn lessons from this current pandemic of Corona virus to protect ourselves and our families in the future.

Trust me: anything we are learning today will more than likely be lost over the years as we return to what we think is normal. I say that because the phrases I opened with pertain to two previous episodes in history that affected my own family. And no, I’m not talking about the Spanish Flu of 1918.

The first phrase, the one about frequent handwashing was used to educate people to avoid spreading a disease called Scarlet Fever. In about 1954, my little brother developed this disease and I can remember the ominous red quarantine sign that was affixed to our house, barring anyone from entering or leaving. I was too young to calculate how long we were quarantined, but I know I was not allowed to go to school, and I had a very real sense of how worried my mother seemed. She was pregnant with her third child and cooped up with a sick toddler and a bored 8-year-old in a single car garage tricked out as a temporary living space while my father built our house.

Fun times no doubt, but an interesting illustration of how our current situation is not so unique.

But wait…there’s more. Scarlet Fever wasn’t usually fatal, just highly contagious. The second phrase in my opening describes one possible transmission method of a disease that caused many deaths up until the mid to late 1930’s.

In 1932 one of the most dramatic events of my mother’s life was the death of her older sister, Melvina Wells at the age of 11. Melvina contracted diphtheria, a truly frightening and highly contagious disease. Diphtheria was the third leading cause of death in children in the 1920s and 1930s.

Diphtheria was called “the Strangler” or “the Strangling Angel of Children.” It began with a sore throat, aches and fever, but the fatal effects of the disease as it progressed was a thick membrane that coated throat, nasal passages and organs such as the lungs and heart. Death was often the result of heart failure or suffocation due to this membrane. One physician described it this way:

 “I recall the case of a beautiful girl of five or six years, the fourth child in a farmer’s family to become the victim of diphtheria. She literally choked to death, remaining conscious till the last moment of life. Knowing the utter futility of the various methods which had been tried to get rid of the membrane in diphtheria or to combat the morbid condition, due, as we know now to the toxin, I felt as did every physician of that day, as if my hands were literally tied and I watched the death of that beautiful child feeling absolutely helpless to be of any assistance.” (“Diphtheria: A Popular Health Article,” The Public Health Journal 18 (Dec. 1927): 574)

Diphtheria is transmitted from person to person, usually via respiratory droplets. And to avoid the spread…quarantine is most effective. Sound familiar?

Mom told about how their family was quarantined and how due to that fact, when Melvina died, they were unable to have a normal funeral. Her body was prepared for burial and displayed in the front window of the home for relatives and mourners to come pay their respects. According to the death certificate I found, she was attended by a doctor from February 2 to February 8 when she died and was buried on February 9, 1932.

A vaccine was developed and tested in Canada in the 1920s but was not well known or accepted in the US until the mid-1930s…too late for my young Aunt Melvina.

In my genealogy studies, I also discovered that two of my father’s uncles died in July 1916 within days of each other. I found no record of their deaths that would tell me how or why they died, but I did find that there was a huge outbreak of polio in 1916 that killed many children in the United States and I can only surmise that this was possibly the cause of death of 8 year old Max Donahue and his 1 1/2 year old baby brother Craig that summer long ago.

As far as I can tell, no other members of my family contracted either Scarlet fever or diphtheria or polio. My mother said that she and her siblings were not permitted to enter Melvina’s room after she got sick. Neither my parents nor I got sick with Scarlet Fever. I don’t know about the other children in my father’s family…or even if polio was the cause of those boys’ deaths in 1916.

What I do know is that communicable diseases are nothing new and we should have learned something over the years. So, what have we learned? Scarlet Fever, diphtheria and polio are examples I can relate to because they are family history, and what I believe to be true is that quarantine is not imprisonment, and distancing, washing of hands. and wearing of masks is not an infringement on my freedom. These acts are simple and sensible practices to help save not only my life, but the lives of those I care about.

Sorry for the cliché, but this is literally not rocket science. None of the procedures we are being urged to practice are new or revolutionary. Stay home if you are sick, don’t get close to others if there is even a possibility they are sick, wear a mask in public, wash your hands a lot.

Get with the program, people! Modern medicine is a wonderful thing, but we can do our part as well with the most elementary practices we (should) have learned from the past.

There is another cliché that is proven time after time: if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

1 Comment

  1. Susan Ahbe

    I had to read this several times Donna…couldn’t believe this……… is like a walk back in time…new to many of us, but so familiar to the older generation. I feel fortunate to be able to stay at home, all be it, the 4 footers seem happy to see us leave for a while.
    Thanks for doing what you do….very informative and always interesting.
    Stay Well.

    Sue

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