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The Mystery of How Stein
Avoided the Spanish Flu

Karren Alenier

The Steiny Road Poet notes that Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) made it through World War I without injury even though she was driving medical supplies in France to soldiers. However, she also did not contract the 1918 Spanish Flu which killed up to 50 million people worldwide and infected about 500 million (one-third of world population).


One of her good friends, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) died from it in Paris November 9, 1918 during the 2nd wave of Spanish Flu. He had enlisted in the French army and was wounded in the head two years before. It was an injury from which he never fully recovered.  

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), another Modernist poet, contracted this disease and wrote most of his well known poem "The Waste Land," while he was convalescing.

Many other well known Americans suffered from this disease, including the sitting president Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) who contracted this flu in Paris while he was there to work out the peace treaty with Germany. His bout with the Spanish Flu was so bad that he suffered hallucinations, making him think he was being followed by spies and that the furniture in his room was moving. At first, his doctors thought he had been poisoned in an assassination attempt. Because he was unable to focus, he agreed to the harsh terms put forth by France and England, possibly setting into motion the environment leading to WWII.


The question is how did Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas, given their travels around France to deliver medical supplies, avoid this disease? While there are no photos of the pair wearing face masks, Stein studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University, enrolling there in 1897 and leaving in 1901. According to an article in The Lancet, Johann Mikulicz, head of the surgery department of the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) began wearing a face mask in 1897 and surgeon Paul Berger in Paris did the same. More wide spread use of the face mask occurred during the Manchurian plague of 1910-11 and the Spanish Flu 1918-19.


Stein was a prolific reader so it was quite possible she was current on practices affecting the field of medicine. On the other hand, Paris had advocates for mask wearing, such as the two men in this photo carrying signs that read, "The Bosche [Germans] are defeated, yes, but the flu is not" and "Mask yourself and mask each other. Try it, you'll like it."

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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©2021 Karren Alenier
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