‘You expected to die of diseases’ — Lessons from past pandemics

Political Theater, Episode 127

President Donald Trump departs the Senate Republicans’lunch in the Hart Building on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump departs the Senate Republicans’lunch in the Hart Building on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Jason Dick
Posted May 20, 2020 at 4:13pm

This isn’t the first time Congress has dealt with a pandemic, but the way the institution deals with it is similar to the ways it dealt with previous ones.

Our ability to eliminate much of the risk of disease to public health is one big change in the last century, particularly compared to the 1918 flu pandemic that killed up to 50 million people, including at least 675,000 Americans. Back then, as now, the House found some novel ways to consider legislation to respond to the pandemic and struggled at times to figure out what to do when it could not get a quorum.

Congress has also found its own members far from exempt from these nasty bugs. In 1918, the speaker of the House, Champ Clark, caught the flu but recovered. Three members of the House died of complications from the flu: Jacob Meeker and William Borland of Missouri, and Edward Robbins of Pennsylvania.

In 1957, during an another deadly flu pandemic, Vice President Richard Nixon was hospitalized. He recovered. And in 1969, amid another flu pandemic, at least one member of the House, Robert Everett of Tennessee, died from flu complications. So far, a handful of members have either tested positive for the coronavirus or contracted the COVID-19 disease, including a previous Political Theater guest, Florida Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, who recounted his experience.

In our latest Political Theater podcast, local historian Tim Krepp leads us through how bad things got in Washington in pandemics past, especially in 1918, when the bells signaling a burial at the Congressional Cemetery ran pretty much around the clock.

We also get into some of the biggest differences in how we process all this, including the expectation back then that lots of people died from disease, lacking many of the things we take for granted now like vaccines and enhanced hygiene. “You expected to die of diseases. This was not uncommon, to have pandemics, especially during wartime,” Krepp says.

Show Notes