Famous Survivors Guided the World After the 1918 Flu — And It Will Happen Again This Time

The Scream — Edvard Munch (Public Domain)

There is an old English proverb, “Diseases come on horseback, but steal away on foot.”

The idea that illness of a global kind can overwhelm us isn’t new. The idea that some among us will continue to thrive also isn’t unusual. What is most unusual, however, is predicting the assortment of those who will survive, many of them quietly picking up their lives and living in a new normal as the disease “steals away,” this time probably with the aid of a vaccine. People we consider famous at this point in history, those who survive, will have tremendous influence over the human population that remains when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. And their combination, their assortment, will guide our future.

How fascinating to study this effect, all the way back to the Black Death and beyond. Whoever survived that (and their descendants) might have led us an entirely different direction through the Alps or found that wool could shed rainwater or that a good bakery always starts with fresh bread. Whoever those survivors were, they selected our genes for the rest of time and probably gave us the rudiments of what’s important, even now.

In 1918, because of its 100-year proximity to this time, the “who” of survivors of that pandemic is even more definitive of our world today. In fact, those survivors have determined who is populating this planet currently, because we are the descendants of their random survival. They were the escapees of the 50 to 100 million who died, most of whom were young men and women in the prime of life. Some who lived distinguished themselves with inventions and political might. They blew our minds with story and humored us through success almost beyond imagination. They drew what was left of the world around them in a new light calling it the dazzling future and are the ones we have to thank for creating just that.

The list is extensive and well beyond that which I acknowledge. But these are a few of the survivors of the 1918 flu who continued to survive other calamities, other misfortunes, and other larger-than-life successes. They are interesting for their eclectic mix of personalities, of capabilities, and that special unexpected gift of devotion to craft. If they hadn’t first recovered from this horrendous killer, then moved forward, their fame may have never come to pass. However, it’s also true that those who were already famous when they contracted the flu could have easily seen their fame reduced by global conditions that eluded them. The great influenza made stars out of select individuals without our ever really putting two-and-two together, and Covid-19 will do the same. There is alchemy in a world shake-up, and it defines what lies ahead.

Survivor #1 — Walt Disney: Disney was 17 when he decided to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps in September 1918. He then came down with the flu, returning home to be nursed back to health by his mother. Eventually he arrived in France with the Red Cross, but after witnessing illness and the suffering of war he quickly realized he wished to return home. He didn’t waste time once he knew his direction, creating Mickey Mouse in 1928, the character who carved Disney’s future on the screen and in theme parks around the world.

Survivor #2 — Edvard Munch: The Norwegian artist is no less famous for his 1893 portrait, “The Scream of Nature” (also known as “The Scream”) now than he’s ever been. Having written the statement, “Can only have been painted by a madman,” Munch struggled with illness throughout his creativity. It is interesting to note that “The Scream” has been deteriorating over several years, the reason cited being “viewers’ breath.” It seems blended cadmium yellow paint can easily discolor and chip in low humidity.

Survivor #3 — Amelia Earhart: As a young volunteer nursing assistant at the Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, Canada, Earhart suffered the Spanish flu, developed pneumonia, and underwent surgery to drain an infection in her sinus cavity. She continued to have painful minor operations to wash out the maxillary sinus but headaches continued and forced her into nearly a year of convalescence. Later, as she became a well-known long-distance aviatrix, chronic sinusitis significantly affected Earhart’s flying. I’ve wondered, as a pilot myself, how she managed this occasional severe discomfort in her difficult attempts at long-distance, high-performance flights.

Survivor #4 — Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Famous for his fight with polio, Roosevelt, as a young U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy traveled to France toward the end of World War I. On the return trip onboard the USS Leviathan, he was infected with the influenza and developed a case of double pneumonia. Too weak to walk unaided, he was carried off on a stretcher. In time, he would become the 32nd president of the U.S., winning a record four presidential elections and becoming a central figure in world events during the first half of the 20th century.

Survivor #5 — Kaiser Wilhelm II: There were those who said the last German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II was instrumental in orchestrating the 1918 flu pandemic, a notion not that far-fetched in the tie between conspiracies and plagues. Infection, it was said, was spread by German U-boats in the Kaiser’s effort to instigate war. But the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire suffered as much of a catastrophic effect as the Americans, British, and French. The Kaiser reportedly survived two bouts of influenza, one in 1908 and another ten years later in 1918. Losing the support of his army, he abdicated as Emperor on November 28, 1918.

Survivor #6 — Mahatma Gandhi: There are those who would say this great leader held to principles others simply couldn’t withstand. When Gandhi contracted the 1918 flu, he rejected most of the medical advice given him, developed pneumonia, and yet survived well beyond this pandemic. India’s leader eventually came to employ nonviolent resistance to lead the successful campaign for India’s independence from British Rule, and in turn inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

Survivor #7 — Georgia O’Keeffe: Famous painter of landscapes and the drama of flowers of New Mexico, the woman beneath the persona of creative artist suffered the 1918 flu about the time she met her future husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Over a period of many years, she sought inspiration in her lone pursuits of New Mexico, imbuing her work with bleached bones and the dynamics of desert colors unlike any other artist before or since. Sometimes fighting mental illness, she didn’t renounce her work as a painter until she lost her eyesight to macular degeneration in the 1970s. It’s been said of Georgia O’Keeffe: “The most remarkable thing about her was the audacity and uniqueness of her early work.” (Jules and Nancy Heller, Wikipedia)

Survivor #8 — Katherine Anne Porter: This Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote mostly short stories, including one called Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about a newspaperwoman and a soldier entangled in a love story set during the 1918 flu. Published 20 years after the event, Porter readily admitted that almost losing her life to the pandemic had left her with a sense of responsibility to depict its influence when so many others had chosen not to speak of it. She carried with her strong memories of the hardship of a plague. “The road to death is a long march beset with all evils,” she wrote in Pale Horse. Katherine Anne Porter surely would have known.


I think about those now famous who could “inherit” our post-Covid-19 world, and come up with a few names, both likely and luck-of-the-draw. They might include these eight survivors:

Elon Musk

Magic Johnson

Jane Goodall

Jeff Bezos

Kim Kardashian

Tom Hanks

Margaret Atwood

Trevor Noah

Or these eight survivors:

Robert Redford

Condoleezza Rice

Mark Zuckerberg

Greta Thunberg

Boris Johnson

Taylor Swift

Tiger Woods

Bill Gates

Either/or, all of them, none of them, or in some eclectic mix, our world will take on a different shape for all time because of these potential survivors of Covid-19. They will move us toward space, to conservation, toward a new kind of sports and entertainment, to delivery of medical and political urgencies and agendas. Some of their children will surprise us, a few will disappear. But depending on who survives and in what stage of their life, we will be carried forward in their wake. It has happened many times before. . . and it will happen again.

Sherrida Woodley is an author in Ea. Washington State. Learn more and connect at www.sherridawoodley.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store