Family encounters with pathogens 100 years apart

Meredith Wright
New York City, New York, USA

 

Photo of the author’s great-grandmother, Anna, and Anna’s memoir.
The memoir was organized by Anna’s daughter Fortunata and has become an
important part of the family’s history. Original photograph by Meredith Wright, 2018.

After my mother died, I became obsessed with preserving family memories and learning as many stories as I could, with the knowledge that most were likely already lost along with her. While sorting through her desk for family memorabilia I came across my great-grandmother’s unpublished memoir. I learned from a relative that my great-grandmother, Anna Ippolito, dictated her life story in 1973 after her husband died. I like to think she had a similar instinct to the one that sent me digging through yellowed pages and dusty shelves to save family memories.

Like every good Italian-American from New Jersey, I already knew most of the story of how my ancestors came to America. I knew that Anna had come across the Atlantic alone, leaving behind loved ones in the village of Sant’Arsenio near Naples. She settled in New Jersey, where she married another Italian immigrant, and they had seven children. Her second-eldest daughter is my grandmother, Mary. As I began to read Anna’s memoir I learned many details of her journey that I had never been told before. Her trip across the ocean was harrowing. She had nine children, but two died very young. One detail in the memoir struck me as particularly riveting:

“On November 29, 1918, the first girl was born. They named her Francesca. She lived nine months, then died of bronchial lung disease. I was eighteen years old. The same year my father died of the spagnol, this was an illness which became an epidemic worldwide. He died one year after I came to America and I still have remorse.”

Spagnol? 1918? What else could it be?

I was certain I had just read that my great-great-grandfather had succumbed to the H1N1 influenza virus, which killed roughly fifty million people from 1918 to 1920.1 Sure enough, when you do a Google search for “spagnol 1918,” you receive the Italian version about the 1918 influenza epidemic, or the “influenza spagnola.” I was familiar with the protein structure of this virus from my coursework, but not with its victims. I learned that Italy actually had the highest excess mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in all of Europe, with a 172% increase in deaths from baseline.2

Anna wrote that her father died one year after she came to America, and that she still had remorse. Was she sorry that she had never been able to visit him during his illness? Or that if she had just waited a year or two to leave home, she would have been there to help her family through that tragic 1918 year? I hope that somewhere, she knows that her travels and grief were not in vain, and that she has nothing for which to apologize. Perhaps if she had still been living in Italy in 1918, she might have caught the influenza spagnola herself and I would not be here in America 100 years later learning  about infectious disease. Or she could have caught the bronchial lung disease of little Francesca – perhaps tuberculosis. Anna’s difficult decision to leave her family opened up opportunities for her children, their children, and someday even mine. How pleased would her father have been to know she made it safely to America and raised a family that valued hard work and education – so much so, that his great-great-granddaughter studies the very pathogens which brought such sadness to his family? It is with intense gratitude that I carry this part of Anna’s story in my heart, and use it to inspire my own.

 

References

  1. Taubenberger JK, Morens DM. 1918 Influenza: The mother of all pandemics. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006;12(1):15-22. doi:10.3201/eid1209.05-0979.
  2. Ansart S, Pelat C, Boelle PY, Carrat F, Flahault A, Valleron AJ. Mortality burden of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic in Europe. Influenza Other Respi Viruses. 2009;3(3):99-106. doi:10.1111/j.1750-2659.2009.00080.x.

 


 

MEREDITH WRIGHT was born in 1991 in Livingston, New Jersey. She was raised in West Orange, NJ, graduated from West Orange High School in 2009, and enrolled at Princeton University to study biology. In 2013 she graduated from Princeton with a degree in Molecular Biology and began her PhD program at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York City.  She studies Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium which causes tuberculosis, and plans to explore a career in scientific communication, with the hope of making scientific knowledge more accessible to wide audiences.

 

Winter 2018  |  Hektorama  |  Personal Narratives