Object of the Month: July 2016

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

The McCormicks at Daisybank were a devoted family, very supportive of one another after the early death, in 1902, of Neil, the owner of Lismore Stores and a profitable tailoring business (see the Object for October 2015). His wife Elizabeth kept the store going for many years, raising a family of two sons (Alastair born 1886; Neil 1897) and four daughters (Helen/Nellie 1884; Catherine/Kitty 1888; Gertrude May 1890; and Annie 1892).

October 1918 at Daisybank: L to R - Neil Munro (Australian visitor), May, Annie, Kitty and Neil

October 1918 at Daisybank: L to R – Neil Munro (Australian visitor), May, Annie, Kitty and Neil

During World War 1, Alastair was exempt from service owing to his position as store manager. Kitty, highly qualified in art needlework, found war work as a munitions inspector in Glasgow at the Barr and Stroud works, where they made precision instruments such as range finders and torpedo depth gauges. Meanwhile, Neil and Annie were students at Glasgow University, both qualifying as teachers in due course.

As a result, four of the McCormick siblings (Nellie, Kitty, Annie and Neil) were frequently staying at the family residence near Kelvingrove Park. The museum archive holds a series of letters between Daisybank and Glasgow during the war (LISDD:2009.M116), which record family developments, island life, news of Lismore men at the front, visiting soldiers from Australia, food parcels sent from the island, and worries that Neil (“Bunny”) might be sent abroad.

16 October 1918. Kitty (Glasgow) to her mother (Lismore), relieved that the war was at last over:

The boys are shouting today that the Germans are accepting the Peace Terms

and that her young brother would now be safe:

They will never send [Neil] when his chest is examined and they are not so hardup for men as they were.

Annie had been ill but was now recovering. In a later letter, it was concluded that she had been very ill, probably with influenza.

17 October 1918. May and her mother wrote separately from Lismore to Glasgow (to Nellie, Kitty and Annie) finding it difficult to accept that they had both contracted the disease:

The plumber came yesterday, but got it into his head that we had all got Spanish Flu and wouldn’t work in the house but went right away back he was so afraid of infection

Elizabeth admitted that she and May were both weak, but

I think we have all got the worst of it past now

but she was anxious for her daughters in Glasgow:

Now girls be sure to take care of each other

Six days later, on the same day, 23 October, May died on Lismore and Kitty in Glasgow, of pneumonia brought on by influenza.

Death Record for Catherine MacGregor McCormick

Death Record for Catherine MacGregor McCormick

There is continuing debate about the origin of the Influenza Pandemic (January 1918 to December 1920). Although generally called Spanish Flu, it did not originate there but was probably a result of the great mixing of peoples associated with the Great War. It infected 500 million people worldwide, causing the deaths of 50 to 100 million (three to five percent of the world’s population) and was one of the greatest natural disasters in human history.

As in the cases of May and Kitty, this strain of influenza killed a disproportionate number of young fit people, because those with healthy immune systems reacted very violently to the virus, resulting in high temperatures and death by pneumonia. The Lismore plumber was right to have been wary.

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