Archive for May, 2020

Memorial Day During a Pandemic

Wednesday, May 27th, 2020

Remembering: A précis of Chapter 7 in Bryn Barnard’s book Outbreak: Plagues That Changed History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; originally published by Crown Publishers in NY. (2005)

PURPLE DEATH WATCH: How influenza influenced war (Barnard, pp. 34-39)

World War I (1914-1918), the world’s first industrial war, introduced most of humankind’s efficient mass-killing machines: tanks; long-range artillery; machine guns; aerial bombardments; submarines; and poison gas.

Poet Robert Graves called the war “The Sausage Machine,” saying “it was fed with live men, churned out corpses, and remained firmly screwed in place.” An estimated 15 million people died, nine million of them in combat.

The war also introduced a new killer, Spanish influenza, the largest epidemic of the 20th century. Of the 100,000 American soldiers who died in WWI, 43,000 died from the Spanish flu. An estimated 20 million people died in India alone, and in isolated aboriginal villages in the Pacific and in Alaska, nearly everyone died.

The so-called “Purple Death” overwhelmed the ability of even the best-prepared governments to care for the living and bury the dead. Influenza forced the creation of global surveillance systems that eventually led to annual flu shots and discovery of the first antibiotic.

An estimated five million people died from this influenza before it disappeared in 1928. Many believe peace negotiations following WWI were so vengeful against Germany they paved the way for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the establishment of his infamous Third Reich.

Spanish flu was not so named because it originated in Spain, but because it was first reported in Spanish newspapers. Spain had remained neutral during the war and operated a national press. Other nations, the U.S. included, suppressed news about the disease, fearing it could provide aid to enemies. Nevertheless, the label “Spanish Flu” persisted.

In August 1918, a second wave of the deadly influenza appeared among troops stationed in Sierra Leone, France, and Massachusetts. The U.S. unwittingly took actions that spread the epidemic. Tens of thousands of young men lined up to register for the draft. Soldiers were shuttled around the country from base to base. By September, every major city in the nation was infected by the epidemic that lasted about a month.

Officials in San Francisco and Philadelphia, not prepared for the second wave, were stacking bodies in morgue hallways and ordering extra coffins. Understaffed hospitals and city morgues were overwhelmed. When the war ended, a majority of celebrants in public places wore gauze facial masks and chanted the rhyming warning:

“Obey the laws

And wear the gauze

Protect your jaws

From Septic Paws”

After the Spanish flu subsided, a worldwide flu surveillance network was developed to try to head off future pandemics. Several flu epidemics have been controlled since 1957.

Beginning in 2001, the US Centers for Disease Control stepped up surveillance programs and with the cooperation of scientists around the world was instrumental in dealing with SARS, another pandemic involving a flu-like respiratory disease.

In 1928 the antibiotic penicillin was discovered and became a major weapon in controlling bacterial diseases during WW2, but only in 1933 did scientists understand that influenza was a virus rather than a bacteria. By 1945, the US was producing enough penicillin to treat a quarter million patients a month.

The age of antibiotics had begun.

Random Thoughts in the Season of COVID19

Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a Master.”                                 —Ernest Hemingway

If you’re having trouble during this time of social isolation with a concern that you are not washing your hands for the recommended 20 seconds, try washing each finger separately as you count “one thousand one; one thousand two; next finger!” And, of course, do this frequently.


While my brain is in this neighborhood of fingers, here’s a keyboard sequence I’ll wager most of us never memorized in typing class:

! @ # $ % ^ & * (  )

And remember, “caps lock” doesn’t work with these! Also, don’t say you never use these keys. In the modern cultural world, e-mail demands you know cap2, and Twitter demands you know cap3. And, your bankers and merchants certainly insist you know cap4.

You might also be surprised to discover the technical name of a sometimes-called “and sign” (cap7) is ampersand. Many printers call it an amperzand; it’s also known as an “ampassy”; and in the original Latin, this symbol is a “ligature”; that is, a combining of two letters.

[By the way, make an effort to sanitize your keyboard!]


Following is a little note from The Fairfax Grammar Book that explains this stuff better than I can:


In writing, a ligature is a combination of two or more letters  joined into a single unit. There were many ligatures used in English at one time, formed to make typesetting easier (known as typographical ligatures), but these were all discarded as printing became easier and less expensive. However, there are two other ligatures that originated in Latin and were carried into English as distinct letters.

[My note: One can’t make a ligature from a keyboard, but just think of AE  or CE run together as a single letter. To be fair, some keyboards offer these ligatures as “special figures” along with the hidden special-set collection that allows typists to insert a Spanish tilde or German umlaut or other oft-required accent marks. These generally are labeled diacritical marks. Many current keyboards use combinations of keys to enter an appropriate diacritical mark.]

While these two letters (AE and CE) were eventually separated in modern English (and eventually reduced to just E/e in American English), there is another Latin ligature that is used in English and on all keyboards today; that is, & (known as the ampersand mentioned above).

Finally, there is one other ligature that arose as Latin evolved over time and is now a part of the modern English alphabet: W (that is “double u”).


The ampersand is also one of the most difficult ligatures to write; it looks like the numeral 8 with two small tails on its lower right (a challenge even to calligraphers). English penmanship often writes an ampersand as a script E with a vertical slash down through its middle. (Don’t say we never use ligatures! The dollar sign and the cent sign probably count as ligatures, By the way, the cent sign is rarely found on current standard keyboards.)


To extend this bit of silliness, look up the word octothorpe! You can startle your friends on Twitter and Facebook with the query, “What’s your octothorpe?”


Lastly, regarding keyboards: The most widespread English keyboard uses a QWERTY design and is named after the first six-letters of the top row of keyboard letter keys.

Also, one of the most beautiful and important six-letter words in the English language can be typed by using only top-row keys where QWERTY begins: That word is POETRY!


Adios! (Yes, it’s Cinco-de-Mayo!)

Read some poetry while you drink your celebratory May 5 beer! Better yet, put down your drink and try to write a poem.