Guest Editorial

On vaccination: What would my grandfather think?


I sometimes wonder what my grandfather would think of the Covid-19 pandemic and the anti-vaccine resistance coming from both sides of the political spectrum.

My grandfather, Charles W. Longenecker, M.D., was a lieutenant and physician in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, who was called up during the flu pandemic of 1918. For more than 50 years, he practiced medicine. He lived and worked on the cusp of the age of modern medicine. 

 Much of Dr. Charles Longenecker’s time in the U.S. Army was spent treating soldiers with influenza. His mandatory enlistment came with uncertainty over the flu, when the war would end and whether he would be sent to Europe, where casualties mounted for the American Expeditionary Forces. He also faced the uncertainty and loneliness of leaving his medical practice and family behind in Kingman, Kansas — my grandmother Mamie and their children, my father Dan, age 1, and Edith, 3.

The Great War was in its final months as U.S. Expeditionary Forces with their allies made the final gruesome push across the Western Front. Meanwhile, 500 million people, a third of the world’s population, caught the flu and 50 million died. In the U.S., there were 25 million cases, and 675,600 people died in 1918-19. 

By comparison, in the U.S. during the current coronavirus pandemic 611,000 have died, worldwide more than 4 million. Like Covid-19, the 1918 influenza was also an H1N1 virus. There was no vaccine and there were no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Doctors and nurses were left with little they could do.

When Charles Longenecker was called up for active duty in August1918, he was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas. His sister wrote him: “I am glad that you are going to cure and not kill … from the way things are going now, it looks like it (war) might end sometime.”

In October, he was transferred to Camp Custer, Michigan, where he would see the intensity of the flu pandemic. In a letter home, he said: “The influenza is bad here. There are about 5,500 sick and there were 45 deaths in 24 hours.” He had 90 sick soldiers to care for on his ward, and he could only alleviate their symptoms and hope for the best. 

Meanwhile, at home, Kingman was feeling the effects of the flu. My grandmother Mamie wrote him in October: “All public gatherings have closed on account of the influenza. … We can go to town, but not to church. I wish you could be here, but when you return you will find a very glad family.”

My grandfather wrote from Michigan in November that the quarantine had ended. In the U.S., 195,000 had died in October alone. Soon, the war was over, though the flu would have a third wave in 1919. There were huge armistice celebrations. Within a week, he was on his way to Fort Andrew, Massachusetts, in Boston Harbor, where he’d treat soldiers coming home from the Western Front for discharge. There he could finally relax and return to a normal schedule. 

By December 1918, he was home with my grandmother and his two children, my father and aunt. 

Life returned to normal. His family had survived, and my grandfather had not been sent to the Western Front. He and Mamie had three more children, whom he delivered. His namesake Charles was born in 1921. 

Then, 14 years after his return from active duty, tragedy struck. In January 1933, young Charles died of polio before his 12th birthday. Like Covid-19 and influenza, polio is a virus. There was no vaccine, and would not be for more than 20 years. 

My father and aunts remembered the hearse leaving tire tracks in the lawn when they took Charles away for his funeral after a wake in the dining room. My grandfather, the doctor, could not save his son; he was powerless against polio. They buried Charles on the edge of the prairie. 

My grandfather lived to see the day, 21 years later, in 1954, when I was a Polio Pioneer, one of the children in the Salk vaccine trials. My parents were enthusiastic for me to have the vaccine, and avoid the fate of my uncle. It was one of the most significant clinical trials in modern history. 

My grandfather embraced science and public health. He devoted 50 years to healing. Healing was not just about the individual; it was about the community. Though his life was fading by the time of the Salk vaccine, I know he was glad. He’d seen soldiers die of influenza. He’d seen his son die of polio. 

I think he’d be appalled at the virulent anti-vaccine rhetoric today. He’d be astounded at the unnecessary loss of life. He’d be disturbed that there are those who might rather live in 1918 than get the vaccine. 

Note: George Longenecker is a writer and retired professor from Middlesex, Vt.

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