By James Blears
As we face up to… yet physically distance ourselves by several paces, from the contagion threat of Coronavirus, or Covid 19 Flu Pandemic, we must draw lessons, especially from the ravages of the 1918-1920 so called Spanish Flu Pandemic.
Even though it`s only just over a century away yet remains seared into the outer reaches of descendants` living memory, the grim death rate statistics are too smeared to accurately gauge. Mortality estimates range between seventeen and one hundred million worldwide. Experts tell us that this H1 N1 virus was an avian variety of flu. It mutated from birds crossing over into humans.
Paradoxically most of the victims then were younger than forty. Older people seemed to have acquired some sort of natural immunity from the 1889-1890 Russian Flu Epidemic, which had spread like wildfire, far and wide.
Remember, back in 1918, there was no commercial air travel. That devastating Spanish Flu pandemic spread via massive World War one troop movements in ships into which soldiers were crammed like sardines. That together with meager rationed rates, after four years of global slaughter, was a major catalyst. The world was at a very low ebb.
Back then, life was considerably harsher and lifespans were caustically briefer. No antibiotics, penicillin or the like to save life. My great grandfather, who worked on the railways, one afternoon complained of an acute pain in his right side and collapsed from a burst appendix. Less than a day later, he died of peritonitis.
On that day, his eldest son 14 year old Joseph who was my grandfather, and the father of my mother, amidst all the grieving, forever abandoned his boyhood dream of training to become a doctor, put on the oversize uniform of his father, rolled up its dangling sleeves and set to work. For the seven years he was the provider for his mother, two brothers and a sister, handing over his unopened wage packet every Friday. He worked on the railways for more than half a century, going on to lead gangs of men as a foreman, clearing train wrecks.
That fateful year was 1914, the start of what was paradoxically known as the Great War, which was meant to end all wars, but led to another. Many optimistically and foolishly thought it`d only go on until Christmas. But in fact, it went on to grindingly cut down the flower of Europe`s youth over the next terrible four years. Blood, mud and carnage, leading to lines of white crosses and seas of crimson poppies.
My grandfather on my father's side was determined to fight for his nation. In 1918, even though he was under aged at seventeen, he fibbed about this, signed up and joined the army to do his duty for King and Country. Back then, with the gigantic casualty rates, no one was asking for birth certificates. After a brutally brief basic training, he was sent to the front in France along with and alongside a jolly and patriotic band of friends. He and less than one handful of them returned home, and they were never quite the same again.
He simply wouldn't talk about the war, saying it was just too appallingly terrible to discuss. Propped up by his fireplace, there was a German army ammunition box, which now served to hold coal and small sticks. An apt and practical, yet starkly awful reminder of a teenager standing on the precipice of hell's inferno, staring down into the abyss of man`s inhumanity unto man.
Less than a year before WW1 ended, and half a world away, Bob Fitzsimmons died on October 22nd 1917 of pneumonia in Chicago. The Spanish Flu Pandemic had not yet been officially identified, but it`s more than likely it was gathering its virulent potency by that time, and had leveled poor Bob. Bacterial Pneumonia is often a secondary infection of influenza and with it, chronic inflammation leading to hemorrhaging in the lungs, and ensuing death, after agonizingly fighting for breath.
The fact it killed such a strong, tough as hobnails man like Bob, shows how systematically deadly this sort of illness can prove for literally anyone. It gripped and took over his body, destroying the ability of his immune system to fight back, as he himself had successfully done time and again overcoming so many opponents.
As a child, Bob Fitzsimmons and his family were perpetual wanderers. At that time an exodus of people was not uncommon, remarkable or particularly unusual. His Father James was an Irishman who married aptly named Jane Strongman from Cornwall in south west England. Bob who was born on 26th May 1863 in the town of Helston, was the youngest of twelve hungry lean children.
When he was only ten years old, the family took a short 90 days voyage, emigrating to New Zealand, settling in Timaru. There his father James and older brother Jarrett established a blacksmith's forge. Young Bob soon became an apprentice. For his entire life he could never build muscle on to his spindly legs and as a fighter he often wore wooly long john underwear to conceal their knobbly pipe stem reediness. But he did build up enormous powerful, muscled arms like Popeye, anchored on to massively powerful shoulders attached to a rooster like chest. With anvil fashioned fists, he could and he did deliver Vulcanized punches.
Bob's stroke of luck came when bare knuckle champion and famous boxing trainer Jem Mace visited New Zealand. Bob who was affectionately known as the “Terror of Timaru,” knocked out four opponents in one night, to win a gem of a contest. Then turning professional and on to Australia to hone his fighting craft in free form school of hard knocks.
In 1891 he KO'd Jack “Nonparell” Demsey to win the world middleweight belt. But redhead Bob, who was also known as “Ruby Robert,” had set his freckled focus on the biggest prize of all, which was the heavyweight crown. Although he never weighed more than one hundred and sixty seven pounds as a fighter.
Bob went on to KO heavyweight champion “Gentleman” Jim Corbett in 1987 at Carson City, Nevada. The event was filmed by enterprising Enoch J Recta, and legend has it that it was at this very spot, that the solar plexus punch first saw the light of day. A fist first!
Much heavier Gentleman Jim, who'd won the title by overwhelming John L Sullivan with scientific boxing, gave balding Bob a comprehensive tutorial, for fourteen painful rounds. Mostly one way traffic especially after the sixth, in which Bob was knocked down hard. It was Bob's second wife Rose, an ex acrobat, who from ringside yelled: “Hit him in the slats (ribs).” And that convinced Bob to switch his attack downstairs which strikingly transformed the outcome, with a badly winded Gentleman Jim curled up like an overcooked shrimp, utterly unable to beat the count.
Two years later in Coney Island, Bob's challenger was the brawny, strong as an ox, ex boiler maker James J Jeffries. Twelve years younger and more than thirty pounds heavier, jim was on the receiving end of a terrible onslaught. Bob broke the younger man's nose and both cheek bones. But Jim bulldozed on, to KO him in eleven gory rounds. And in a 1902 rematch repeated the KO but three rounds earlier.
Bob who's ranked as the eighth hardest puncher of all time by The Ring Magazine, still had enough vim to give George Gardner a twenty round boxing lesson a year later in San Francisco, to win the newly created light heavyweight crown, to become the World`s first triple division champion. In 1907 he even had the temerity to take on Jack Johnson, who stopped the forty four year old veteran in two swift rounds. Bob who continued fighting until 1914, finally called it a day with a record of 101 fights, including 69 wins, with 57 KO`s , twelve losses, thirteen draws and six no contests. The lightest heavyweight champion of all time, yet one of the heaviest handed.
From four marriages, Bob fathered six children, four of which survived infancy, for these were hard times. Bob died aged just fifty four. He'd crammed a great deal into a short life. But alas, a fondness for gambling meant he retained little of his money, earned the hard way.
No vaccine was developed in time to save Bob. And here we are, fast forward one hundred and three years, almost full circle, with all of our medical expertise and space age technology plus science, struggling with one eye on the clock, trying to develop another vaccine, which is so sorely needed to save countless lives.
Strangely ironic that?