Spanish flu and a stinky barrel of the Mixture

Net Results: My great-grandparents and early 20th-century experience of ills and cures

An American policeman wearing a flu mask in 1918 to protect himself from Spanish flu: we are all looking for our own comforting Mixture. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty

Many years ago, as I was driving my visiting grandmother to meet the rest of the family, we got into a long and fascinating conversation about the 1918 flu epidemic.

By then, she was in her late 80s. It was to be the last time she would make a flight halfway across the US from the state of Wisconsin to visit us, as air travel,  and more specifically, traversing airports, was just too exhausting for her.

Realising this, I was cherishing every moment with this much-loved woman to whom I’d always been especially close.

Because we both enjoyed the topic, I nudged her into a rambling discussion of her own childhood, always fascinating to me. In among stories of farm life, and getting up at dawn on Sundays to ride the farm horses across the countryside with friends before Mass and then a huge breakfast – she mentioned how at age 10, she and her four siblings were sent off to live with relatives while their own farmhouse was put into quarantine.


Her father, my great grandpa, had come down with the Spanish flu, in the epidemic sweeping across the world in 1918. Great-grandma stayed in lockdown with him, to nurse him through. Warning signs were placed in the windows to ward off visitors.

I only vaguely knew of the event, which was mostly long forgotten by then. But I can better see now that must have been a terrifying time. That strain of flu was particularly lethal and could kill swiftly, even within 24 hours. It affected the young and old, and people aged 20-40 in particular – the age of my great-grandparents, who had a young family and a farm to run.

Locked away

I suppose my grandmother’s older brothers, then in their early teens, shouldered the responsibility of keeping the farm functioning while their parents were locked away.

Amazingly, none of the siblings contracted the flu. Grandma’s brother, my great-uncle Ray, still had his farm when I was a child and he was in his 80s. I can remember going there to collect crisp, sweet ears of fresh corn, an American favourite in mid-summer and a ubiquitous crop throughout the midwest.

Great-grandpa also survived, and great-grandma never contracted the disease herself despite sharing close quarters with her infected husband. My grandmother said great-grandma – a kind but steely and stern German immigrant – credited this to what was referred to in the family as the Mixture, an all-purpose, home-made healing salve and potion that smelled appallingly, she said, and was kept in a small barrel in the barn.

Ingredients were regularly topped up as needed. And no, I’ve no idea what was in there, or how it didn’t itself pose a threat in its unrefrigerated state out in a barn.

At any sign of illness or indisposition, the stinking concoction was given liberally to both human and animal residents either internally or externally, depending on the malady. During his affliction, poor great-grandpa got it both ways – spread on his chest and swallowed down from a large spoon.

At any sign of illness, the stinking concoction was given liberally to both human and animal residents either internally or externally, depending on the malady

I would instead credit extraordinary genes, in my great-grandparents on both sides of my mother’s family. To be alive in the early 1900s meant your ancestors survived or dodged all the other diseases going back through generations.

My flu-besieged great-grandparents and all their children lived well into their 90s, and in the case of grandma and her sister, their 100s.

Snake oil

I used to visit my great-grandparents as a child, happily sitting in the kitchen of a creaky old house while they spoke German to each other (as they always did at home) and great-grandma’s beloved canary perched on her shoulder and sang.

I've done some genealogy research on my mother's father's side too , and going back generations, that line routinely lived into their 80s, very old age indeed in the 1800s, 1700s and 1600s.

So I think genes trump the Mixture.

Still, we are all looking for our own comforting Mixture right now, and technology is, unfortunately playing its part. As has been seen on Amazon in the past weeks, many snake oil merchants have eagerly been selling "cures" and "preventions" for coronavirus, when none (yet) exist.

I sometimes wonder whether we are better or worse off in terms of rumour and magical thinking than during that 102-year-ago epidemic

And seeing the proliferation of unintentional, and worse, deliberate misinformation across the social media networks that connect as in ways unimaginable in 1918, I sometimes wonder whether we are better or worse off in terms of rumour and magical thinking than during that 102-year-ago epidemic.

But the positives of our interlinked, technology-enabled world easily outweigh those negatives. We can be together even when we are apart. We can more easily weather isolation. We can counter false rumour.

And, of course, technology enables an extraordinary sharing of knowledge among the researchers racing to find medications that work and ultimately a vaccine, using techniques and tools brought to us by the astonishing power of tiny silicon chips. I’ll gladly take all of this, rather than the Mixture.