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This photo was taken in 1909. In 1918, three of the four pictured here died of influenza. My great-grandparents, Mary and Vincent Zimny (seated) died, as did Elizabeth Zimny (behind Mary).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my great-grandparents, Mary and Vincent Zimny, because they died in the 1918 influenza pandemic that we’ve been hearing so much about now. Their loss was a major blow to my grandpa and his four siblings, who were left orphans. Let us not forget all of those who have died in the current coronovirus outbreak and the loved ones they have left behind. Elizabeth, who was Mary’s sister, also died and left behind small children.

Here’s a copy of the news articles that ran after Elizabeth’s death. So sad.

Flu letter

As a historian, I firmly believe that nothing is new. Yes, this coronavirus is new, but pandemics have happened before. I take comfort in knowing that we, as humanity, have been through this before and have come out stronger on the other side.

I wrote an article for the Mankato Free Press in 2005 about the 1918 flu. Reading it now, it’s eerie how many similarities to today’s situation are present.

  • “Flu cases overwhelmed the state health board.”
  • “The board was flooded with requests for help all around Minnesota that fall.”
  • Mankato closed its schools.
  • The Mankato Normal College (what would later become the university) also closed.
  • 60 patients were at the emergency hospital at one point, straining city finances (the hospital was owned by the city).
  • Residents were asked to donate supplies to the hospital.
  • Residents were asked to wear masks in public.
  • The virus was a novel virus (never before seen).
  • “The 1918 flu also taught valuable lessons about isolation and quarantine.”

And other notable information that may be useful as we look ahead:

  • There was a vaccine available, but in limited quantities and reserved for those most likely to get the flu.
  • There was an initial peak in October, then it waned a bit. But then the end of WWI occurred on Nov. 11, 1918, and people flooded the streets in celebration. Consequently, there was another wave of infection.
  • 10,000 Minnesotans died.
  • Other influenza spikes occurred in 1957 and 1968.

Here’s the entirety of the article if you care to read the whole thing.




I wrote about my grandpa’s story of being orphaned in Chapter 6 of my memoir.