Coronavirus / Coronavirus Commentary

Remembering the 1957 Asian Flu Pandemic

coronavirusSurrounded by amulets of the coronavirus crisis, I stare out my window at a city that may or may not be on the verge of disaster. To my right is a case of canned pasta. To my left are cartons of corned-beef hash from New Jersey and bottled water from Maine. I’m ready for whatever comes.

Except, I’m not ready. In fact, even at my advanced 80-something age, I find the whole COVID-19 panic to be strange and troubling. I’ve lived through epidemics before, but they didn’t crash the stock market, wreck a booming economy, and shut down international travel. They didn’t stop the St. Patrick’s Day parade or the NCAA basketball tournament, and they didn’t drop the curtain on Broadway shows. Will these extreme measures have any real effect on the spread of COVID-19 in New York, or America? We’re about to find out.

My first encounter with a global pandemic came in October 1957, when I spent a week in my college infirmary with a case of the H2N2 virus, known at the time by the politically incorrect name of “Asian flu.” My fever spiked to 105, and I was sicker than I’d ever been. The infirmary quickly filled with other cases, though some ailing students toughed it out in their dorm rooms with aspirin and orange juice. The college itself did not close, and the surrounding town did not impose restrictions on public gatherings. The day that I was discharged from the infirmary, I played in an intercollegiate soccer game, which drew a big crowd.

It’s not that Asian flu—the second influenza pandemic of the twentieth century—wasn’t a serious disease. Worldwide, this flu strain killed somewhere between 1 and 2 million people. More than 100,000 died in the U.S. alone. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, governors did not call out the National Guard, and political panic-mongers did not blame it all on President Eisenhower. College sports events were not cancelled, planes and trains continued to run, and Americans did not regard one another with fear and suspicion, touching elbows instead of hands. We took the Asian flu in stride. We said our prayers and took our chances.

Today, I look back and wonder if an oblivious America faced the 1957 plague with a kind of clueless folly. Why weren’t we more active in fighting this contagion? Could stricter quarantine procedures have reduced the rate of infection and lowered the death toll? In short, why weren’t we more afraid?

It’s hard to answer that question without explaining what it was like to grow up in an age of infectious illness. My mother once showed me a list of the contagious diseases she survived before the age of 20. On the list were the usual childhood illnesses, along with deadly afflictions like typhoid fever, pneumonia, diphtheria (it killed her older brother), scarlet fever, and the lethal 1918–19 Spanish flu, which took more than 50 million lives around the world.

For those who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, there was nothing unusual about finding yourself threatened by contagious disease. Mumps, measles, chicken pox, and German measles swept through entire schools and towns; I had all four. Polio took a heavy annual toll, leaving thousands of people (mostly children) paralyzed or dead. There were no vaccines. Growing up meant running an unavoidable gauntlet of infectious disease. For college students in 1957, the Asian flu was a familiar hurdle on the road to adulthood. For everyone older, the flu was a familiar foe. There was no possibility of working at home. You had to go out and face the danger.

Today, thanks to vaccines, fewer and fewer people remember what it was like to survive a succession of childhood diseases. Is the unfamiliar threat of serious sickness making us more afraid of COVID-19 than we need to be? Does a society that relies more on politics than faith now find itself in an uncomfortable bind, unable to lecture, browbeat, intimidate, or evade the incorrect behavior of a dangerous microbe?

When the coronavirus finally runs its course, one of the most important tasks for health-care officials will be to determine whether the preventive measures we’re taking today were effective. Did deploying the National Guard save lives, or did it simply expose the soldiers to an infection that, in the end, could not be stopped? Did we pay too high a price for tanking our economy and disrupting our society?

Or did we get it right, acting quickly and decisively to slow the virus, shutting down possible pathways of infection? By comparing the 2020 data with information from 1957, we’ll also be able to find out if the strange people who lived in that distant year—and I remember them well—could have done more to reduce the death toll of the Asian flu. The more answers we get, and the sooner we get them, the better it will be for everyone. When the curtain goes up on Broadway again, somewhere in a faraway continent to be named later, we can be sure that new viruses will be waiting in the wings.

Reprinted with Permission from - City Journal by- Clark Whelton

If You Enjoy Articles Like This - Subscribe to the AMAC Daily Newsletter!

Sign Up Today
Read more articles by Outside Contributor

Leave a Reply

102 Comment threads
87 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
124 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Good article. Yes, I lived through the “Asian Flu” and the “Hong Kong Flu.” No panicking, no hoarding, no political backstabbing. Just good old “common sense.” “Common sense” and faith is what is sorely lacking now. If you’re sick, stay home. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer aren’t going to make you well. If anything, they’ll make you ill.


I am more afraid of what I see happening than I am about the Coronavirus. I get the feeling we are falling into a trap.


Very thoughtful article. Back in the 50’s we were a Christian nation. We put our trust in the Lord, not the government.


Interesting! Polio vaccine came out when I was in elementary school and I remember standing in a long line waiting to get it. I wonder if our growing obsession with antibacterial sprays, wipes, and so on over the years has added to our susceptibility to infections. In the old days when we drank from the hose, ran barefoot outdoors, and played with our sniffling pals without a thought of contagion, perhaps we were a hardier lot, building up more immunities.


Amen brother. What you have written couldn’t be more true. We are raising creme puffs who fall as soon as trouble starts. They always seem to find a scapegoat, as longas they don’t have to look at themselves.


As a former health care professional after my career in the military I am appalled by the current hysteria. The flu kills 20,000 – 55,000 in the U.S. alone each flu season, global COVID-19 toll so far: around 6,000 – 7,000; the biggest casualties until now: any shred of integrity the propaganda media might have had left, the truth, the economy, and common sense.

Ann B

To me this point you made is the key to this whole panic…… “a society that relies more on politics than faith now”

R. Orstad

I am also in my 80’s. I was quarantined as a 5 year old after playing with an other child that came down with Polio. I have had all of the other childhood diseases as described by the above author. However, I find myself in my home, still walking outdoors. Trying to keep a distance from others, washing my hands more than usual and going about my daily chores. Life does go on. Take heart, pray to God to give you strength through this ordeal. It will pass and we will be better for going through a tough time.

John Karkalis

I was in high school during the Asian flu outbreak. I remember concern but not panic back then. The only panic I recall was the stomach churning anxiety of the approaching
My mom grew up on a PA farm where large families were the rule, since so many never made it to adulthood–carried away by diseases we today would consider just a minor inconvenience
We sure could use some of that tough,gritty spirit today.
If she could see the massive runs on toilet paper she would just shake her head and ask, “Just how many cows do you have on your farm?”

Suzee B

Had totally forgotten the Asian flu … which is odd because I was 17 that year. I remember the polio threat as a child as well as the usual childhood diseases (I had the chicken pox and rheumatic fever). This is a great article, especially looking back now! Thanks!

David Spade

The pressure cooker is heating up….are we over-reacting? When the heat is too much, the lid will fly off. I am going to guess that we will lift many of the sanctions within three weeks, and start getting back to a normal existence. We will have more illness, unfortunate deaths, but we will have a normalcy that most will live through without any illness. There are people that are willing to move beyond what we are experiencing today. I am part of the elderly group that might risk exposure. I will mostly stay confined, but I trust in spiritual intervention that will help us all move on.

Phil Hammersley

Te media is WAY overboard. First 15 or 20 minutes of every hour is ALL panic of virus! Was Sen. Cotton correct in thinking a Chinese weapons lab allowed/let the virus out in the public?

Carol Stoner

I am nearly his age and I contacted the Asian Flu as a teenager. I did not go to a hospital, but my parents let me tough it out at home. Nothing in my life has ever made me feel as badly. I had measles, mumps, whooping cough, chickenpox, and pneumonia. I did not get the,scarlet fever, and was terrorized I would get polio. Everyone of my age knew someone who died from one of these diseases. Never through all of these and many others to was much done. Certainly will be interesting to see how this Covid-19 plays out.

E. Fletcher

This is so overdone. It’s become a political football and it’s being used to create other problems. You can’t bring society to a standstill. People still have to function. The leftists and the media have struck a cord of fear and fear means control. Yes, there is an illness out there and it can be very bad for some. Is it any different than the Asian flu, the Swine flu, the SARS, Ebola???? The reason I say it has become. Political football is because so many politicians are calling for the cessation of life’s activities that it will affect our economy, the kind of thing that leftists and democrats love. They can declare themselves hero’s trying to save people and create a recession also. A recession……..what a great thing to blame on Trump. The media will have a hayday over this one. Why was there not a fuss made when… Read more »


We know for a fact that this virus is an airborne virus . It requires a host to survive and spread. Instead of the govt. throwing 8.5 billion$ at this thing and more than
likely 75% of that will go to Administrative costs I feel it would be better spent if they supplied each and every person in the US 3 boxes of latex gloves an
2 months supply of high dose vitamin C. Do whatever you can to build and support your immune system. And as the number of host decrease so will the areas
of contamination.

Camilla Hunter

Thank you for this article! I’m taking a biologic that lowers the immune system so I need to be cautious but will still give a hug where needed, definitely prayers where needed, run an errand for someone in need…just living!

Jennifer K.

Thank You Mr. Whelton for such a brilliantly written, succinct article. I agree with everything mentioned in the article. Being a senior myself, born in 1944, I too witnessed many ravaging illnesses and diseases and we just took sensible precautions and got on with it. Yesterday, I read an article whereby someone stated we are in the COVID-19 pandemic right now. Does the numeral 19 signify there were 18 COVID outbreaks before this one? If so, when were they and what were the outcomes? I did not recall any such drastic measures that we seem to be going through now.

Michael Stertz

Good article.

Peggy Waldron

GREAT article. Thank you so much. You have helped me calm down – a lot !!


I had the asian flu – I was a college senior and stuck it out by myself in my apartment as my apartment mates were all home for term break. And I was just reading the statistics from 1918. This is nothing like that was. It will be interesting to see how far this goes – how bad it gets.