Today, at the end of March 2020, my home space of Minnesota is under a “stay at home” order. As the case and fatality counts mount, my thoughts have been turning to the impact that past epidemics had on my ancestors.
In 1911 scarlet fever killed my great-grandfather William Abromitis and two of his children in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. Today we think of scarlet fever as a no-longer-prevalent childhood disease that’s fairly easily treatable with antibiotics. In 1911 it was a killer.[1. The Abromitis family’s experience was the subject of the first genealogy article I ever published. “Twelve Days in May: Epidemic in the Family of William Abromitis of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania,” Polish Genealogical Society of Minnesota Newsletter 19 (Summer 2011): 1, 8-13.]
My grandmother Julia (Sakusky) Abromitis had smallpox as a child, even though smallpox vaccinations have been available in the U.S. since the eighteenth century. She survived.[2. See Edward A. Belongia and Allison L Naleway, “Smallpox Vaccine: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Clinical medicine & research 1,2 (2003): 87-92. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1069029/ : accessed 28 March 2020). Apparently what Grandma had was variola minor, the milder form of smallpox.]
Spanish influenza killed Julia’s uncle Peter Urbanavage in October 1918. Although he had no death certificate and no obituary, he was buried in an individual grave rather than the mass graves prevalent in some parts of Schuylkill County.[3. See Jake Wynn, “A Story from 1918 Reveals Chaos as ‘Spanish Flu’ Raged Through Schuylkill County,” Wynning History, 9 February 2020 (https://wynninghistory.com/2020/02/09/chaos-pandemic-1918/ : accessed 28 March 2020). Jake’s article contains references to the mass graves.]
My mother, born in 1925, used to talk about her experience of quarantine, which was still a frequently used public health measure in the 1920s and 1930s. No one went into quarantined households and no one went out (except possibly wage-earners) until the health inspectors removed the quarantine placards. Necessities were delivered (of course, in those days, delivery of milk, eggs, bread, and other items was much more prevalent than it has been today).[4. Lois (Neifert) Abromitis, conversations with author, various dates (1950-2000s); not recorded.]
I wish I had talked with my older family members about their experiences! My grandparents, born about 1900, were young adults in 1918. I’ll bet they had lots of information they could have shared!